High-ranking officials in North Korea and businessmen from the reclusive nation who are stationed across the border in China are supporting their poor relatives financially to deter them from fleeing the country, according to sources.
The decision to help keep struggling family members in North Korea afloat is motivated by fear of suffering a severe collective punishment should they attempt to defect from the impoverished nation, the sources told RFA’s Korean Service.
“However strong the powers officials enjoy, they must live under the shadow of extreme anxiety that their poor relatives may flee North Korea,” said a source living in the capital Pyongyang, who had recently visited China.
Collective punishment for officials whose relatives defect has been “much more severe” under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, who ascended to power after the death of his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il from a heart attack in December 2011, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“To prevent relatives in need from making the worst decision [defection from North Korea], officials who are worried about it sometimes support them financially, but the officials find it difficult to help them all of the time,” the source said.
“Some impoverished relatives of high-ranking officials take advantage of the situation and try to solicit money by hinting that they are considering defecting or by threatening the officials.”
An informed source based in China told RFA that North Korean businessmen earning foreign exchange for the regime there are also on the constant lookout for relatives in financial trouble back home.
“Many North Korean expatriates in China on business between the two countries always keep their eyes and ears open regarding their poor relatives and support them financially,” said the source.
The source said that if their close relatives flee North Korea, the expatriates will be “immediately recalled home by the government and punished severely,” though he did not provide details of what penalties they might face.
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.
No legal basis
Meanwhile, a former member of North Korea’s National Security Agency, who has since defected to South Korea, told RFA that the regime has no legal right to subject the country’s broader population to the collective punishment system.
“The rules for collective punishment that the authorities are using to oppress North Koreans are stipulated in the ‘Executive Internal Principles’ of the [ruling North Korean] Workers’ Party, which is not open to the public,” said the source, who gave his surname as Chu.
Membership in the exclusive North Korean Workers’ Party is highly sought after and provides North Koreans with opportunities for employment in public office and to rise in social rank.
According to Chu, background checks on relatives are extensive for North Koreans seeking positions in government and—in addition to probing the families of applicants’ parents—involve investigations extending to cousins for prospective administrators, second cousins for officials, and third cousins for security agents.
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 Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.