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North Korea’s Control over its People and the People’s Safety Agency
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2015-04-08 11:32:53
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North Korea’s Control over its People and the People’s Safety Agency

Testimony of a former officer of the People’s Safety Agency


KIM Young-Cheol

Former officer, People’s Safety Agency in North Korea

Escaped from North Korea and Entered South Korea in February 2008



I earned two degrees in North Korea. I first studied in North Korea’s technical college from 1986 to 1992. After I graduated, I started working in the Inspection Bureau of the People’s Safety Agency (PSA) as so-called elite. I was a lieutenant in the PSA. Later, I studied in the Political College of PSA. I became a major and worked as the Chief of Inspection Bureau until I fled to South Korea. The reason why I was successful within the North Korean government was due to my family background. My father and uncle were both honored elites in North Korea. My uncle’s primary job was to turn Korean businessmen in China or Southeast Asia into North Korean spies. One day Kim Jong-Il executed my uncle, who worked in the Central Party, due to a disgraceful event. Afterwards, our family was denounced as a family of a traitor. As a result, my uncle’s family was imprisoned in Yodok Prison Camp and my father was forced to retire from the military. I was forcefully discharged and was relocated to the countryside. This signified a fall from the elite class to the working class and I could not stand such treatment. This was when decided to escape from North Korea, to seek revenge against Kim Jong-Il regime.


Dynamics of National Security Agency and People’s Safety Agency-Revolving Around Shimhwajo Incident


Under the Central Party, there are National Security Agency (NSA) and the PSA. To be clear, the latter operates as a police while the former is in charge of catching spies. Basically, PSA is in charge of regulating criminals that damage the country or the people. The North Koreans are afraid of the PSA but not of the NSA. This is because the PSA can legally punish people without just reason, using excuses like their income and expenditure. However, after the ‘Shimhwajo’ incident turned out to be false, the former Ministry of Public Security became PSA in April 2000.


The Shimhwajo incident lasted from 1996 to 2000 and was carried out in two states, causing the death of over 20,000 innocent North Koreans. This incident started when the responsibility of the Arduous March (great food shortage in the 1990s) shifted to Seo Gwan-hi, the former Secretary of Agriculture in the Central Committee of the Party.


The incident concerned a group from PSA centering on Chang Seong-Taek attacking the Central Party officers of supreme power, including some of Kim Jong-Il’s key personnel. Afterwards, North Koreans increasingly complained about the PSA, causing its status to decline. Eventually, those involved in the ‘Shimhwajo’ incident, including the Director of Political Bureau were executed after the thorough investigations of the PSA. Afterwards, Chang Seong-Taek’s 35 Bureau Incident broke out in 2005. To summarize this incident, in North Korea, Article 4 of the ‘10 Principles to Establish the Monolithic Ideological System (Article higher than Criminal Code)’ states that Kim Il-Sung is to be honored like a God. The article states that people should carry true zealous faith, recognizing no one other than Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. One day, a guard at Kim Jong-Il’s summer house stopped a group of officers, when they had been sent there by Kim Jong-Il to rest. The guard denied their entrance, claiming that they could not enter without Chang Seong-Taek’s permission. It so happened that Chang Seong-Taek, Kim Jong-Il’s brother in law, and Choi Ryong-Soo were having a party in the villa with ‘Gippemjo (Pleasure Team)’. The guards considered Chang and Choi’s order to be more valuable than that of Kim Jong-Il’s. The guard was executed for having violated the ’10 Principles to Establish the Monolithic Ideological System.’

Kim Jong-Il was furious and the people involved were fired the next day. Some of them were even sent to coal mines. The PSA, which held a lot of political power, was relocated under the cabinet and Chang Seong-Taek was demoted for 2 years. He was sent to Kim Il- Sung College of Advanced Courses for Cadres and the Central Party’s Administration Office was dissolved. However, seeing the disorder in the country, they decided to make it a ‘Department’ and turned it into a separate organization. Chang Seong-Taek was reinstated and the Administration Office was put back into place. Afterwards the PSA was relocated under the Central Party’s direct control (separate from the Cabinet), and received a status equivalent to the NSA. In North Korea, like a fish without water, individuals are known to be incapable of functioning without orders coming from the Central Party. The analogy is that the North Korean administration offices, including the Cabinet, function as a propeller with the Central Party as rudder.


Interrogation Process in Inspection Bureau


The officers in PSA must memorize all of the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code in college. In North Korea, the judges are punished if they do not follow the Criminal Procedure Code. During interrogation, a suspect must be confined for less than 48 hours. Since human rights violations may occur if a security agency confines a suspect out of their own convictions, they must receive the permission from Chief Persecutor’s office before confining anyone. That’s when the investigation starts. Constructing the suspect’s statement is also defined in the Code. For example, according to the Article 120 of the Criminal Procedure Code, they receive an oath from the suspect that they will assume the responsibility if their statements turn out to be false.


Where I used to work, all investigation documents dealt only with macroscopic issues. The microscopic investigations are carried out in pretrial section where the appropriate sentence is determined.


Afterwards, the pretrial on the suspect can last up to six months. If the suspect does not admit to his crime, the process can be extended up to a year. At this period, a “Pretrial Extension Decision Paper” must to be submitted to the prosecutors’ office. If the pretrial officer finds it a burden to write the document, and skip this process before extending the pretrial, the officer will be severely punished for violating human rights. (Fired, sent out of the party)


Before the Shimhwajo incident in 1999, beating used to take place during interrogations. Nowadays, physical beatings rarely occur. However, the political prisoners who are sent to the NSA for execution are treated lower than dogs or pigs. Yet, a common criminal, dealt within the PSA, is investigated with ‘scientific,’ ‘objective’ and ‘evidence-first’ rules, not with forcible torture. When the government asks “Why do you beat people so harshly?” the interrogators used to reply “Are criminals considered human beings?” If the Central Party answered in affirmation, the interrogators would respond “Then why did you take away their identification cards before sending them to prison?” The Central Party had no valid response to the questions. For your information, before sending suspects to Gyohwaso (Long-term Prison Labor Camp), there is something called inspection of suspects’ background. If any member of their families or relatives is a pilot, a submarine worker, or worked in an anti-South Korean sector, they may be sentenced just to probation.


The Restricted Lifestyles of North Korean Residents


I am often asked why rebellion never occurs in North Korea. This is because they are monitored through two or three stages. North Koreans are monitored in all social aspects by informers of the NSA and PSA and members of Party organization. Agents of the NSA and PSA monitor around 200 people each. If the population of North Korea is about 20 million, this indicates that there are around one hundred-thousand agents of the NSA and PSA, about 1/20 of the population. In addition, these agents have about 30 informers working for them. This indicates that 60 out of 200 North Koreans are spies. So even if South Koreans infiltrated North Korea, they still would not be able to hold protests against the government. Not even those who were involved in the 5.18 Gwangju Democratization Movement would succeed in North Korea.


Along with the double and triple surveillance system, North Korean residences were controlled by the “Self and Mutual Criticizing Meetings.” Under this system, people criticize themselves as well as others, causing lack of cooperation and unity among North Koreans. For example, I was unable to make a single friend even though I had worked in the military for 12 years. Demonstrations or protests can only take place when the people come together. This is very difficult in North Korea.


Lastly, in North Korean society, there are two separate people in charge as an administrative officer and as a Party officer. They are taught to be suspicious of each other and to evaluate one another. This is a violation of human rights and that is why there can be no freedom of press in North Korea.


Punishment Culture as a Tool in a Reign of Terror


In North Korea, a public execution can be easily observed. Most of the 18,000 North Korean defectors in the South have witnessed it. It can be said that the North Korean government is running a reign of terror. There was a time when there was one execution per week.


Even if the condemned had committed a grave offense such as murder, this fact is not released to the public. This is to make people believe that anyone can face execution, regardless of the severity of their crimes. The corpses of the executed cannot be taken away by their family. They just bury them in a level ground. Additionally, it seems to me that there has been some false information about executions provided by North Korean refugees. For example, some said that they have seen criminals burned alive. However, according to the PSA, criminals have been hung, never burned alive. 


Environment of Prisons


Although North Korea itself could be considered as a huge prison, prisons do exist in North Korea and those who have been imprisoned in South Korea would be shocked by its condition. An unconverted long term political prisoner (for 34 years) in South Korea once visited the prison in North Korea. He said he would not be able to last a day in a North Korean prison.


A room in a North Korean prison is about 16m2. It has steel-barred windows and prison guards constantly patrol by the rooms. A hole on the corner functions as a toilet. However, it is not a flush toilet but one with a vile stench where excretion is visible right below the cover. Sometimes, people happen to see others use the bathroom while eating their meal. A meal consists of a rice ball made of corn and bean. It’s practically thrown at the prisoners and the rice ball often breaks apart. This meal is extremely deficient. Unless the families of the prisoners provide food from outside, once a week, the prisoners die soon of malnutrition.


During the Arduous March in 1997, around 20 prisoners died every day. At the time, they had to get rid of the corpse. However, these prisoners are considered to be traitors, not yet cleansed of their sins. Therefore, they were not handed over to the family but buried in the mountains behind the prison. The prisoners did not have enough strength to dig a deep hole for the corpses-the holes would be only 20~30cm deep. If it rained heavily in monsoon season, the arms and legs of the corpse would reappear through ground. Then the prison guards would order the prisoners to rebury them again.


Although I have never been to Yodok Prison Camp, I suspect that the situation there is even worse. From what I have heard, only three thousand out of six thousand prisoners that were placed in the prison camp due to Shimhwajo incident came out alive after two years of imprisonment. According to what I have heard, there is a method of coal mining borrowed from the Japanese occupation period where they dig a hole just deep enough for their body to fit into. Later, they would just crawl out backwards unable to turn around. I have heard that this method is still employed in Yodok Prison Camp.


Children on the street - Khotjebi


Many children died during the Arduous March and many perished three years ago 3 (when I was still in North Korea). I am sure some of you have seen images in the media of kids living on the streets. Why do you think they are wandering the streets instead of attending government-operated kindergartens? In kindergartens, they try to brainwash children to make them loyal to the regime while barely giving them anything to eat. They also exercise strict control and force them to chop wood as well as wash clothes in the stream. The children do not like living under such forced regulations. As a result, they run forced way of living. So they run away from the kindergartens and live on the streets, sometimes even freezing to death.


Processing North Korean Escapees after Forced Repatriation


In year 2000, I believe that there were about 20 people sent back to the security bureau that I used to work in. The lowest ranking security agents bring in the captured escapees from Shinuiju, Haesan or Onsong Jipgyeolso (Detention Center). Once the escapees are brought in, interrogation begins. The problem is that there is no legal basis for punishing the escapees because there are no articles on how to treat them. As a result, even so social discipline had deteriorated in North Korea, there is no way to punish someone without any legal basis.


Up to the year 2004, the Criminal Code consisted of 160 Articles. During Supreme People’s Assembly in September 2004, the Criminal Code was expanded to 320 Articles. Before, the defectors were not subjected to legal punishment; they were sent to the PSA or each city’s Rodongdanryeondae (Labour Re-education Facility) instead. There is a something called ‘Illegal Border Crossing’ where criminals forced into harsh labor for a period less than a year without any just reason. Because there was a justifiable reason for defecting, hunger, and the security agent usually forced them into labor rather than to imprisonment. Afterwards, they are sent to Jeungsan Rodongdanryeondae, which is believed to be worse than prisons.


There are some people who have been to the Rodongdanryeondae up to four times. Sometimes, they are sent to Kaechon women’s Rodongdanryeondae. If they are sent there for the second time, they must stay three years, third time was punishable for five years, and the fourth time back usually resulted in death.


As for those who came back to North Korea after spending time in South Korea, they were punished by the Article 28 of the Criminal Code as traitors. They were handed over to the NSA and were executed. Otherwise, they would be sent over to Yodok Prison Camp and sentenced to live like animals.


North Korea’s Use of Wireless Phones and Phone Tapping


In 2000, North Korea used Samsung cell phones made in China and Japan. While there was no such thing as a phone bill, the phone itself is sold $700 USD each. Considering that North Korea’s GDP is $30~50 USD, this is exceedingly expensive. I used a Samsung cell phone but it was difficult to get service in the mountains. This is because there needs to be a telephone pole every 40km for optimal service. I believe that great Yongcheon explosion which killed a lot of people including the fire fighters was caused by cell phones.


It was difficult for the North Korean government to wiretap cell phones at first so they had looked around for four years until they decided to use Egyptian Communication Company for tapping.


Radio Regulatory Monitoring Bureau (27 Bureau) of the NSA is in charge of tapping cell phones. As soon as they overhear something suspicious, investigations take place almost right away.


North Korean People’s Awareness of Human Rights Violation and Ways for Improvements


I believe that around 60~70% of the North Korean residents are aware of the fact that their human rights are being severely violated compared to other countries. This is because the North Korean leadership is corrupted and probably less than 50 people in the government sincerely trust Kim Jong-Il. The reason why the North Korean regime can maintain its status is because the political leaders can enjoy the benefits provided by Kim Jong-Il and can exercise their powers freely. For example, the high-ranking officers watch South Korean TV programs and movies at home. They use their private generators to produce electricity if it is not well provided. It’s not just the high level officers; there are many members of the working class that watch Korean TV. Although they clap for the Party and the government on the streets, they know the reality through South Korean movies and TV programs.


Yet, many peasants remain brainwashed. They are still unaware of the realities because they are too busy farming and do not have the time and space to think about their situations. The North Korean authorities want all North Koreans to live like the peasants. Kim Jong-Il’s basic policy is to make people focus on their everyday lives so that they become too busy to pay attention to other aspects of life.


Although the South Korean government and the international society are trying their best to improve the human rights situation in North Korea, all Kim Jong-Il cares for no opinions other than China’s. What Kim Jong-Il fears more than anything is China cutting off its aid to North Korea. However, Kim Jong-Il would not care even if China cuts off its aid and North Koreans starve to death.