Citizens of Pyongyang were mobilized to denounce North Korean defectors and refugees in South Korea in a rally following rare public acknowledgment by the sister of Kim Jong Un of anti-regime leaflets floated over the border by exile groups, sources in the country said Monday.
Launching leaflets and small gifts by helium balloon across the Demilitarized Zone from South Korea is a common tactic of Kim regime opponents and human rights groups in the South. They contain information that the Pyongyang government withholds from its citizens, as well as items such as U.S. dollars or USB flash drives containing videos that are banned in North Korea.
Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, a close confidant of her brother who some observers believe is next in line in the ruling family, made a statement about the propaganda leaflets to the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper last week – a rare case in which state media acknowledged the leaflet campaigns.
She referred to those former North Koreans sending the leaflets from the rival South as “human scum little short of wild animals who betrayed their own homeland,” and “mongrel dogs who bark where they should not.”
She also called on the government of South Korea to prevent further releases of propaganda leaflets into North Korea.
After her public statement, the authorities in the capital Pyongyang organized the anti-escapee rally and ordered everyone to participate on Saturday, according to local sources.
After the rally, a resident of Pyongyang who asked not to be named for security reasons told RFA’s Korean Service that the event backfired in the view of many people in Pyongyang – calling attention to freedoms absent in the North.
“The fact that the North Korean defectors’ groups in South Korea frequently send propaganda leaflets criticizing the North Korean regime shows how South Korean society guarantees freedom in their activities,” the source said.
“It’s totally obvious. The authorities organized the rally so [the protestors] are just shouting. They may outwardly say ‘Death to defectors!’ but inside everyone is probably saying, ‘If only I could go to South Korea,’” said the source.
The source said that the North Korean government is approaching this problem in ways that worked only in earlier eras when the country was more isolated from outside influences.
“The people of North Korea are awake. They know what the rest of the world is doing, but the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] doesn’t know that,” the source said.
“They are under the illusion that people are [still] extremely loyal to the Kim family, just like in past eras,” said the source.
The source said the Central Committee was now out of touch with how people think and is relying too much on their assumed loyalty.
A North Korean escapee who arrived in South Korea last year, Han Sun-hee, told RFA that the Pyongyang demonstration on Saturday is a typical forced mobilization event.
“If Pyongyang citizens do not attend such [forced events], they will be immediately subject to self-criticism, so they must participate in the event no matter what,” she said.
Self-criticism, or saenghwal chonghwa, is a regular act by which the citizens report to the authorities on any shortcoming they personally have regarding loyalty to the state.
“We always have to participate in these events. [Pyongyang] and all areas under the city are subject to a quota system, so each neighborhood is bound to contribute a certain number of people,” said Han.
Forced mobilization typically involves impressing the citizenry into providing free labor on farm or construction projects. But this type of forced event is paid and transportation is provided, according to Han.
“They don’t have to participate in construction, but instead they have to attend all these events. [Authorities] pay them 100,000 North Korean won [U.S. $12.50]. People take buses to come. They have no choice but to be dragged around because it’s not something they can complain about,” Han said.
“It’s not that they are at the rally because it’s good. If they don’t participate, there will be self-criticism,” she added.
Kim Yo Jong condemns leaflets
The protest rally against escapees followed Kim Yo Jong’s statement two days earlier condemning South Korean leaflets – a public acknowledgement of the leaflet campaigns that puzzled many North Koreans, an official in Pyongyang who asked not to be named told RFA.
“Today’s Rodong Sinmun had a report [which included Kim Yo Jong’s statement] about North Korean defectors in South Korea sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets into North Korea, and the residents are surprised to hear the news,” the official said.
“Whether the party intended it or not, the Rodong Sinmun has explained the North Korean defectors’ activities in detail,” he said.
“The strong statement against South Korea was issued because the anti-Pyongyang leaflets directly criticize Kim Jong Un. However, I don’t understand at first glance what it was that they intended by publishing it in the Rodong Sinmun,” said the official.
According to the official, residents were unsure why the country’s leadership was so concerned about the leaflets this time around.
“Disillusioned with the hereditary rule of the Kim family, young people are eager to find out how the South Koreans criticize Kim Jong Un’s maladministration in the leaflets,” he said.
Another source, an official from North Hamgyong province who requested anonymity for legal reasons, confirmed to RFA that the citizens there were also scratching their heads over the report on escapees’ activities in South Korea.
“The Rodong Sinmun suddenly published a statement by Kim Yo Jong, the First Deputy Director of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” said the second official.
“Although [she] is criticizing the defectors’ activities and the South Korean authorities [for allowing such activities], this is the first time that news of defectors [in South Korea] has been reported in Rodong Sinmun,” said the second official.
The North Hamgyong official said that news of the leaflets came at a time when many citizens are already griping about their government.
“These days, the coronavirus crisis has caused residents to complain about the authorities,” the second source said.
“In the midst of this, Kim Yo Jong’s statement was posted in the Rodong Sinmun, which revealed to the world the contents of the anti-North Korean leaflets, and the efforts of North Korean defectors to bring information into the North,” the second source said.
Following Kim Yo Jong’s statement, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration quickly told the North that those who released the leaflets would be restrained and Seoul would try to reduce future leaflet drops.
The Blue House in a statement said that releasing leaflets into North Korea is “an activity that is truly good for nothing.”
The South’s Unification ministry also appealed to civic groups to stop releasing leaflets, but in the past, these groups have ignored similar appeals, citing their right to free speech.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.