Pyongyang Moves to Identify Defectors

The campaign is aimed at punishing families of those who flee the country.
2012-03-12
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South Korean rights activists shout slogans outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul demanding that Beijing scrap plans to repatriate North Korean refugees, Feb. 21, 2012.
AFP
The North Korean government has launched a campaign to identify and punish families of defectors in an apparent bid to prevent further defections that have highlighted abuses in the reclusive country, sources said.

The move comes amid claims by refugee advocates in South Korea that China has repatriated 31 North Korean refugees it arrested last month despite international concerns they could suffer abuse or even execution for fleeing North Korea during the mourning period for its late leader Kim Jong Il.

According to a Pyongyang resident, the government is interrogating families with members who have been "missing" for long periods as it moves to strengthen procedures to check defections.

The resident from the North Korean capital who recently visited China told RFA that “thorough investigations on families of people who are assumed to be defectors but have been classified as missing persons due to lack of evidence are now underway.”

“They use an intellectual method of interrogation by examining members of each family not all at once but one at a time," said the resident, identified only as Min.

Min explained that the North Korean authorities want to pin down the motive of those who might have defected and the dates they left the country.

Examinations of cases stretch for long periods if there are any discrepancies in statements made by family members, he said.

“I heard that even if they don’t find any discrepancies between the statements, they use extremely coercive methods to find faults by repeating the same questions over and over again while changing the interrogators,” Min added.

Confirmation

A Chinese Korean, identified as Cho, who has returned from her visit to her family in North Korea's northwestern Hwanghae province's capital Haeju, confirmed that the government is conducting the probe on the defections.

Cho said she “heard the news that the entire area of Haeju, too, is under investigation.”

From these accounts, observers said, it can be assumed that the North Korean authorities are carrying out a nationwide investigation on families of suspected defectors.

Families that are classified as those of defectors could be banished to remote areas, Min and Cho both said.

A Chinese source familiar with the situation in North Korea said that while the investigations appeared to be generally of "missing persons" in North Korean households, they were particularly aimed at probing defections.

“It seems to be related to the forced repatriation issue of North Korean defectors that is currently becoming a subject of discussion worldwide,” the source said.

“In fact, it looks like they are determined to hunt down those missing people who do appear to have defected from the country.”

Plight

Human rights groups have recently highlighted the plight of North Korean defectors in China who face deportation home and possible execution.

Refugee advocates in South Korea said last week that in the latest case, Beijing had sent home 31 North Korean refugees it arrested last month despite international pressure against the move.

Rumors had been rife that Kim Jong Un issued a shoot-to-kill order against people attempting to cross the border during the mourning period for his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, and has also called for stern punishment for their relatives, said Do Hee-Yun, head of the Citizens' Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees, Agence France-Presse reported.

North Korea has in the past treated those who simply crossed the border to find food with relative leniency, while punishing severely those who attempted to flee to the South, according to North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity.

However, all fugitives are now treated as traitors worthy of severe retribution, the coalition group of North Korean defectors based in Seoul said.

The Chinese source believed that the North Korean authorities "might have come to the conclusion that if this issue of forced repatriation of those North Korean defectors captured in China is prolonged, it could become a link that leads to the creation of more defectors.”

Last fall, Pyongyang classified as defectors those citizens on the suspect list who have not returned home for more than five years and punished their families by banishing them to remote areas.

Reported by Kim Joon-Ho for RFA's Korean service. Translated by Kang Min Kyung. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.