North Korea has blown up a showcase inter-Korean meeting hall and pressed citizens to join staged venting rallies to show its fury at what it views as traitors who have fled to South Korea, after small groups of them launched balloons carrying leaflets denouncing leader Kim Jong Un.
Not all North Koreans are on board with the angry state campaign, which featured Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong calling the leaflet-launchers “human scum” and “mongrel dogs.” Some in the North in fact envy families with members in the South because they send cash remittances back home, sources in the country said.
“Even though the party is organizing a series of mass rallies to denounce the defectors, the people are envious of the defectors’ families,” a resident of North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA’s Korean Service recently.
“Residents are being made to shout out slogans to condemn the defectors, but after the rally is over it sure is hard to find anyone saying bad things about defectors on their own,” the source said.
“This is because the families around us [with a member who] defected are living well despite the difficulties of the national economy,” the source added.
Most of those who send balloons to the North are called “defectors” in both Koreas, who remain in a formal state of war long after the Cold War ended elsewhere.
But rights groups draw a distinction between defectors, who fled the North as government or military officials, and refugees -- ordinary citizens who escaped poverty or hunger in the region’s poorest country.
North Korea’s belligerent turn this month is seen by Pyongyang watchers as calculated to extract diplomatic or economic concessions from Seoul and Washington in a well-established pattern of crisis escalation.
Smuggling cash through China
However the international reaction plays out, inside the country, the government’s break with a longstanding policy of ignoring or playing down discussion of exiles in the South is making more ordinary North Koreans think about them.
“The more the party strengthens class-consciousness education against defectors and denounces them, the more that residents show the exact opposite reaction,” another source, a resident of Ryanggang province who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA.
“They continue to hold rallies against defectors, so there is a growing interest in the freedom enjoyed by the defectors who have settled in South Korea,” the second source said.
The exiles send money to their relatives in the North through intermediaries in China, who take a cut for arranging the smuggling of cash, usually Chinese yuan or U.S. dollars, across the porous Sino-North Korean border.
North Korean refugees in South Korea face social discrimination and many struggle economically as they are less competitive in South Korea’s cutthroat job market. But 62 percent of them sent money to friends and relatives in the North in 2018, according to a survey by a rights group.
The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, which interviewed 414 North Koreans in the South, found most forwarded $500-2,000 a year – significant sums where an official salary is worth about $5 a month.
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, 32,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea since 1998, including 1,047 last year.
The North Hamgyong source said that residents are complaining about having to attend rallies denouncing defectors.
“The people gripe about fatigue and they are discontent with the authorities’ ongoing rallies.
“They are critical of the authorities for focusing only on promoting the greatness of the Highest Dignity and creating a crisis against South Korea without solving the food problem that has befallen many residents at this difficult time,” the source said. The Highest Dignity is an honorific term for Kim Jong Un.
Higher mountains down South
Skyrocketing food prices followed the closing of the border with China during the COVID-19 epidemic, while U.S. and U.N. sanctions aimed at pressuring Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile programs have dealt a blow to the country’s emerging market economy, sapping the income of many.
The lack of access to affordable food is making the residents ask what the government has done for them, according to the source.
“More and more people are asking what plan the Highest Dignity has, if he is truly the Highest Dignity,” the source said.
“Residents are really envious of defectors’ families, because they help their families [in the North] survive the U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus crisis,” the source added.
The Ryanggang source said that rumors of the wealth of refugees’ families have long circulated in the province, which borders China.
“They have a saying here that ‘The Mt. Halla range is better than Mt. Paektu’s’”, the source said, referring to the tallest mountains in South and North Korea.
Though North Korea’s Mt. Paektu is a sacred site in Korean culture and taller than South Korea’s Mt. Halla, saying that the Halla range is better implies that those with a connection in the South are economically better off. South Korea’s economy is about 50 times the size of the North’s.
“Young men and women used to avoid defectors’ families as spouses, but these days, they are becoming as popular as most senior officials’ families,” the second source said.
“The party condemns defectors as human scum and national traitors, but the residents realize that defectors in the South enjoy political and economic freedom,” said the second source.
“People say that we should instead denounce the officials who threaten and exploit the people and the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party,] which is neglecting the situation.”
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.