North Korean Files Rare Complaint Against Authorities to Get Son’s Body

2015-09-23
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U.S. missionary Robert Park holds a map showing suspected North Korean prison locations during a protest in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul, Dec, 3, 2010.
U.S. missionary Robert Park holds a map showing suspected North Korean prison locations during a protest in front of the Chinese embassy in Seoul, Dec, 3, 2010.
AFP

A North Korean woman has filed a formal complaint against central authorities, demanding the return of the body of her son who died in prison just before he was to be released, in a rare move in the isolated country where citizens can be punished for challenging the totalitarian regime, according to sources inside the country.

The woman, a widow in her 50s whose surname is Kang, lives in the administrative district Yeonpyeong-dong in the city of Hyesan in northern North Korea's Yanggang province, sources from the province told RFA’s Korean Service.

In the letter she submitted to the Office for Complaint Management of the Korean Workers’ Party, Kang demanded the return of the body of her son, who died in Sungchun Prison in South Pyongan province.

“Explain why my son died! Return my son’s body to me!” she wrote in the letter, according to the sources.

Kang’s son, who had served in the military, was discharged from duty when he was 31, but was caught smuggling goats and dogs to China to raise money for his wedding, one source said.

“The lady is a widow and has only one son,” another source in Yanggang province said. “Since his discharge from the army, the son had smuggled goats and dogs to raise funds for his wedding, and he was imprisoned.”

North Korean authorities convicted Kang's son and sentenced him to three years in prison in March 2014, the first source said.

He was granted early release in August of this year under a general amnesty to celebrate the 70th anniversaries of the nation’s independence from Japanese colonial rule and founding of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, he said.

The pardoning of prisoners “convicted of crimes against the country and its people” was to take effect on Aug. 1, the North's official KCNA news agency reported in July.

The son’s name was on the list of inmates to be released, but when he did not return home last month, his mother went to the prison to look for him and was informed that he had died suddenly, the source said.

Prison authorities have not confirmed the son’s cause of death, and have ignored Kang’s demand to return her son’s body to her, he said.

Keeping the dead

It is routine for prison authorities in North Korea not to return the bodies of those who die or are executed in jail to their families, but it is extremely unusual for relatives to file complaints with the Workers’ Party, demanding that prison authorities hand over the corpses.

When the story of Kang’s travails spread around Hyesan, citizens began grumbling about the Party’s policy of not returning the bodies of those who die in jail to their family members, the second source said.

“The news about this widow became a subject of controversy when residents heard about it, and people are anxiously waiting for a response from authorities,” he said.

International human rights groups have condemned North Korean political prisons and labor camps where inmates are routinely subject to persecution and inhumane treatment, and mortality rates are high because of starvation, illnesses, forced labor, rape and torture.

North Korea detains between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners in political prison camps, or about one of every 200 citizens, according to a report issued in February 2014 by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, which documented the network of such prisons and the atrocities that occur inside them.

Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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