Moon: I wasn’t aware at the time but they had placed a few people to keep an eye out on my house. They placed informants to keep tabs on our daily life. One of my workers I hired confessed to me one day that the MSS ordered them to keep tight surveillance on my house for 25 days. The worker told me that they were looking to see if I would run (defect) or if strangers were coming to my house. Hearing all this made me think “I can’t even stretch my legs, I can’t believe I’m being watched like this”.
Unification Media Group (UMG): In 2015, the UN established a human rights office in Seoul to monitor human rights in North Korea and record the testimonies of victims of human rights violations. The South Korean government has also taken up the responsibility of recording defector testimonies since late 2016. These records will serve as decisive legal evidence when punishing the perpetrators of human rights violations after unification. Today we will hear first hand accounts from the victims themselves, and discuss the extent of human rights violations occurring in North Korea.
Once a member of the family escapes North Korea, family members are often left behind and placed under severe scrutiny and face harsh punishment. Today we will hear testimony from a North Korean defector named Ms. Moon Mi Hwa about the treatment of defector families in North Korea.
To start off, where did you live in North Korea?
Moon: I was born and raised in Jungju, North Pyongan Province. I lived there for my first 30 years of life, then moved and settled in North Hamgyong Province for 20 years. I escaped North Korea in the summer of 2015, and arrived in South Korea in 2016.
UMG: What motivated you to leave?
Moon: I was a devout follower of the regime in North Korea. After my second daughter went missing, my first daughter’s entire family left North Korea. In my second daughter’s case, people thought she went to China. In my first daughter’s case, however, it is almost certain that she left for South Korea as she went with her entire family. I did not initially foresee any problems as I was head of the local inminban (people’s unit, a type of neighborhood watch) at the time and my songbun (family political background and loyalty) was good. The disappearance of my second daughter was not a big issue, but I was under heavy surveillance after my first daughter’s family defected and faced severe discrimination.
UMG: What was your songbun status?
Moon: Songbun in North Korea is handed down from generation to generation. My older brother was made a hero of the state twice, so we were a “double hero” family. Our family was bestowed the honor during Kim Jong Il’s rule after we donated pork to the army, as we managed to farm 12 tons of pork that year. We received many benefits and our family had ties to the military, so our songbun was definitely good enough. But living under surveillance made me very anxious and stressed, and I began thinking ‘going down South’ would be better than living a life like that.
UMG: What types of surveillance methods used?
Moon: As soon as my daughter defected, the Ministry of State Security (MSS) came to search my house. It was joint search conducted by the MSS and Ministry of People’s Security (MPS), and they entered my house without a warrant. They went through our closet, ripped off the paper walls that were blocking out the wind and searched high and low for any sort of evidence. It was as if we committed espionage; they even went through our roof and floor heating panels. The search was so dehumanizing that it made me want to shoot them if I had a gun. I thought to myself “I can’t believe I worked so hard for my country under these people.”
UMG: Your loyalty for the party began to falter and doubts started creeping in during the search. How did they place surveillance on you after the search?
Moon: They threatened to confiscate my home, a house that I had bought. We moved into the house after our first daughter suddenly defected and we hadn’t even unpacked. My youngest daughter and her family were living there at the time but a local administrator tried to forcibly evict them and take the house. The administrator had ties to the military, and I think he was living in someone else’s house as a guest. So the authorities thought this would be a good “two birds with one stone” situation, and gave him an entry permit for the house. The administrator’s men told my daughter’s family to pack their belongings in a carriage and leave the house. They even threatened them with an axe, but my daughter stood her ground and managed to keep the house.
UMG: You mentioned that you bought the house yourself, how much was the house?
Moon: We bought the house in 2008 for 1.8 million North Korean won. 1.8 million KPW at the time was enough money to sustain a normal household for 2 years. The exchange rate at the time was 50,000 KPW for 100 Chinese yuan, so it was a lot of money back then.
UMG: Did you maintain contact with your first daughter after she defected?
Moon: We contacted each other twice a year. Foreign calls are monitored with a detection device and so I had to call her from a remote location, far away from my house. You also need a broker to facilitate all this and the costs are quite steep, so I wasn’t in a position to call her regularly.
UMG: You were the head of the local inminban for 20 years, were you able to continue in your position after your daughter defected?
Moon: I had no issues continuing in my position after my second daughter went missing. However, an order was issued in 2012 after my first daughter’s defection. The order decreed that any family member of a defector or missing person can’t be the head of an inminban. In truth, it is difficult to lead an inminban if a family member has defected. You have to tell people to “keep an eye on people so they don’t defect” and “report any strangers in the neighborhood”, so you lose all credibility once you have someone defect from your family. So the order came down and I was dismissed from my position.
UMG: How were you dismissed?
Moon: They [the authorities] gathered the inminban leaders and announced “Today, the head of number ‘x’ inminban’, ‘person x’ has been forcibly dismissed due to her daughter’s defection”.
UMG: What went through your mind after being dismissed?
Moon: Initially, I wanted to kill myself. I felt myself being more withdrawn in front of people, and I felt people were talking behind my back and pointing fingers when I went outside. It was very difficult to go out during the day for a period of time. I no longer wanted to live there. I asked myself how I could continue living in a place where I’m constantly weighed down.
UMG: What did you do after your were dismissed?
Moon: I felt mistreated and betrayed after years of loyalty to the party. I thought to myself, “This is the hand I’ve been dealt and nothing else matters”, and decided I wanted to earn some money. I only thought about lining my pockets with money. I bought a food processing machine and started earning money from home.
UMG: So your house was searched, you almost lost your house and were ultimately dismissed as the head of your local inminban. Was there more surveillance and scrutiny following those events?
UMG: What about your husband and other family members?
Moon: My husband was an extremely loyal follower. My husband would stir up a fuss and say he would report me whenever I spoke to my daughter on the phone or received money from her. My husband was a cadre before he was dismissed after my daughter’s defection. He was understandably upset over it and harbored some resentment. Our relationship began deteriorating. My husband started drinking everyday and threatened to hit me. Seeing my husband turn into that kind of person made me shake my head over and over. I realized that what they were calling socialism was doing harm to people.
Then my daughter rang me one day and told me, “If you don’t come now, it will be almost impossible later”. My daughter wasn’t expecting her loyal mother to betray the regime and defect, because I was trying to persuade her to come back and told her all will be forgiven. But my mind changed after the worker’s confession. My daughter was surprised when I told her I wanted to leave. She contacted me in early July and I defected right after the election on the 19th.
UMG: What are your impressions of South Korea?
Moon I heard stories that South Koreans herd North Korean defectors in a fenced compound so we don’t escape. But once I arrived, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and Hanawon looked after me from head to toe. I was also happy to receive my own house after the process. They were out to protect me rather than scrutinize.
UMG: That was Ms. Moon Mi Hwa testifying about the lives of defector families and the surveillance they face from the North Korean authorities.
Defector families are under constant surveillance and face various forms of discrimination, often leading to punishment. We will now hear from a legal expert about the State’s actions and its issues. Joining us is Professor Cho Jung Hyun from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Law School.
Hello Professor. What kind of problems could you identify from Ms. Moon’s testimony?
Professor Cho: Fundamentally, assuming responsibility for one’s own actions is a basic legal principle. So having other family members taking responsibility for an individual’s actions and discriminating against them through a guilt-by-association system is simply unacceptable.
This is especially true if the house search was conducted without just cause. This violates the right to privacy under Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which North Korea is a party to. Also, attempting to take away housing by physically threatening people and humiliating them in the process is not acceptable.
Being ostracized into a specific social group facing various disadvantages and discrimination only on the grounds that a member of your family has defected could mean that you may also be subject to persecution or other inhumane acts, and if the state is systematically implementing this, there are grounds for crimes against humanity under the ICC. You may also be officially recognized as a refugee under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Other defector families have testified to experiencing imprisonment, torture and forced exile, among other severe violations.
UMG: Thank you for your legal opinion on Ms. Moon’s testimony.
The people of North Korea continue to suffer under the regime’s systematic human rights abuses. South Korea and the international community are preparing evidence-based material to prosecute the perpetrators of human rights violations in future. We call upon the North Korean authorities to afford basic human rights to all of its citizens immediately.