North Korea’s regime leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the head of a border guard unit, his family, and a soldier under his command punished after he was discovered trying to sell materials portraying life inside the hermit kingdom to Chinese nationals, sources said.
A company commander of the 25th Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, which is stationed on the border with China in Yanggang province’s Hyesan city, was arrested earlier this month while attempting to deliver the materials, multiple sources said, prompting the regime to increase security in the area.
“This border guard incident occurred on July 2 on the Yalu River’s [which divides the two countries] ‘Gravel Island’ near Hyesan’s Seonghudong outdoor pool,” a source in Yanggang told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The criminals were caught by the Border Guard’s Rapid Response Unit.”
According to the source, the Rapid Response Unit had been mobilized without prior warning and ordered to monitor the movements of guards with the 2nd Battalion using Russian-made modern night vision goggles, leading to the arrest when they discovered the commander’s intention to sell the materials.
He said the operation was reported all the way up the chain of command to Kim Jong Un because of the grave nature of the commander’s offense—an attempt to deliver video material depicting the living standards and work details of residents of Yanggang province, as well as unspecified “internal documents.”
Kim immediately ordered the commander and his family members placed in a prison camp, the source said, adding that “even the soldier [under his command] who was not aware of what happened” was sentenced to life in prison following trials which found him “guilty by association.”
A second source in Yanggang, who also declined to provide his name, confirmed the incident and subsequent punishment, saying the severity of sentences had rattled residents of the region.
“Not only were members of the Border Guards shocked, but also high-ranking officials and local residents,” the source said.
“After this incident, security was heightened to the point where not even a single ant can approach the border.”
According to the source, details of the information the commander had planned to sell, as well as how he intended to sell it, remain unknown.
Two Chinese nationals who were to receive the information were also taken into custody at the scene of the arrest, he said.
‘Guilt by association’
While the incident has put local residents on edge, the source said that many North Koreans felt pity for the soldier who was punished, despite not being part of the plan to sell the sensitive information.
“The soldier who was sentenced to life has received lots of sympathy,” he said.
“The general sentiment is that there is no way a powerless soldier who did not know what was happening would have been able to stop the situation.”
North Korea’s “guilt by association” system of collective punishment often entails the incarceration of multi-generational extended family members in a prison labor camp for the political offense of one relative.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its 2014 World Report that collective punishment in North Korea involves sending to forced labor camps not only the offenders but also their parents, spouses, children, and even grandchildren.
“These camps are notorious for horrific living conditions and abuse, including induced starvation, little or no medical care, lack of proper housing and clothes, continuous mistreatment and torture by guards, and executions,” it said.
Forced labor at the camps, which are known as “kwan-li-so,” often involves difficult physical labor such as mining, logging, and agricultural work, all done with rudimentary tools in often dangerous and harsh conditions. Death rates in the camps are reportedly extremely high.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.