A raft of recent executions and forced disappearances in North Korea linked to the secret wiretapping of high-ranking officials has prompted members of the leadership to abandon their homes, according to sources inside the country.
Since assuming control of North Korea following the death of his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il in December 2011, regime leader Kim Jong Un has carried out a near-continuous series of high-level purges, including his own uncle last year.
The practice has sparked a debate among residents of the capital Pyongyang about what has led to the executions and disappearances, with the consensus being that the homes of the officials had been wiretapped by North Korea’s formidable State Security Department.
An official in Pyongyang recently told RFA’s Korean Service that “in December 2013, several complaints were lodged by the North Korean Workers’ Party leadership that the State Security Department had even wiretapped departments under the Central Party,” and Kim Jong Un had responded by saying that “if they are clean, why do they fear being wiretapped?”
Soon after, wiretapping and surveillance by the State Security Department became “ubiquitous,” targeting high-ranking officials in their homes and forcing them to rein in conversation with their families, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Several officials had gone so far as to send their children to stay with relatives or to live in areas outside of Pyongyang, he said.
“A vice-minister of the Workers’ Party central committee sent his son and daughter to an uncle’s house located in Gangdong, outside of Pyongyang,” the official said.
“Another vice-minister sent his children to a college dormitory and they now meet each other only on weekends at a specific location.”
A university student studying in Pyongyang, who also declined to be named, recently told RFA that “children of high-ranking officials wander outside after school hours or spend their time in secluded areas.”
The source said that children of officials are afraid to go home because they fear being monitored by the State Security Department.
Instead, he said, they prefer to stick together, and these new “gangs” of wealthy children are increasingly known for leading fast lives in luxurious hotels and restaurants around the capital.
“In early June, children of Central Party officials and officials from the North Korean armed forces went to the Munsu Water Park in a group of seven men and women, consumed alcohol in the Haebangsan Hotel, and got up to no good, so the Pyongyang police were dispatched to deal with them,” he said.
At least 15 senior officials are reported by South Korea’s intelligence service to have been executed so far in 2015, including two vice-ministers who had challenged Kim over forestry policy and construction plans, respectively, and four senior members of an elite musical troupe.
North Korea executed Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol in April for acts of disloyalty to Kim Jong Un, including falling asleep during a meeting attended by Kim, South Korea’s spy agency told the National Assembly last month.
South Korean lawmakers were quoted by Seoul’s Yonhap news agency as saying that Hyon, who was close to Kim and had appeared in state media a day before his execution, was shot at close range by an anti-aircraft gun in a public execution on April 30 watched by hundreds of officials.
Many South Koreans were astonished at the brutality of Hyon’s execution, “but North Korean residents were never concerned at the news that an official had been executed, and took no interest,” a source living in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province recently told RFA.
The source said that central government officials could be executed “one by one every day, but this has nothing to do with our lives,” adding that many would regard such events as a case of “good riddance.”
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.