Bribe-hungry North Korean authorities await reunions for separated families

Reunion participants comprised of family members separated by the Korean War wave goodbye to each other at North Korea’s Mount Kumgang Resort in October 2015. The event marked the 20th family reunion conducted by North and South Korea. Image: Yonhap.News Agency

During a meeting between North and South Korea’s Red Cross organizations on July 22, it was agreed that a separated families reunion will be held at Mount Kumgang from August 20-27. The reunions are held for family members that have been separated since the Korean War some 70 years ago, and are emotional events. The fact that another reunion has been scheduled is seen as a positive development.

The South Korean government has already conducted a lottery to select from the large pool of applicants hoping to attend the reunion. North Korea’s Red Cross has begun the work of selecting participants and determining the living status of family members with relatives in the South. Simultaneously, South Korea’s separated family members database is being examined for information on South Korean citizens that potential participants in North Korea have requested.      

Daily NK interviewed a source in North Korea (region redacted for the protection of the source) to provide insights into how reunion preparations are conducted on their side of the border.

Daily NK: How are the participants for the reunions selected?

Source: Generally, the applicants for separated family reunions are selected by the Party. North Koreans with South Korean relatives are anxious and hopeful, but nobody knows who will be picked. Those who have been accused of disloyalty to the Party are ineligible. It’s good to be picked, but there’s no way to do anything about it if you aren’t.  

Those who are picked are suddenly contacted by lower level Party officials, who say something like, “Comrade, thanks to consideration from the Great Marshal, you have been selected as a participant in the reunion. This is because you have faithfully carried out your work for the Party.” The person is normally surprised and elated. Only then, when given this news, will the person’s neighbors typically offer their congratulations.     

Daily NK: What is the socioeconomic status of the people who are chosen to participate?

The authorities have never stopped their surveillance of these people. Those born in South Korea are considered to be part of the “hostile class.” As the times have changed, it has become a bit different, but in the past no matter how diligently these individuals studied, they could not progress any further than a trade or vocational school. In this type of society, where only the cadres live well, they have lived life without luxuries or convenience. However, these days, it’s possible to find success through market trading, so some have become wealthier.     

Daily NK: What kinds of preparations do the participants need to undergo?

Source: They don’t need to do anything on their own. Residents who are well-off might desire to give a gift to their relatives from the South when they meet them, but conditions don’t favor this and the North Korean authorities do not condone the practice, saying, “The enemy needs no gifts.”

The North Korean authorities make painstaking efforts to meticulously prepare for the event. In past years, the first step was for provincial-level authorities to summon the participants for lectures regarding the rules and regulations that must be adhered to when meeting with their South Korean relatives. The participants are also given clothes to wear that match those worn by the other participants. Suits and hanbok [traditional Korean formal dress, referred to as josonot in North Korea] are expensive, so most North Koreans are unable to afford them on their own.   

The second stage of preparation involves bringing the participants to Pyongyang. In order to reduce the impression that the participants may be poverty-stricken, the authorities feed them well for a couple days, which typically brings a little color back to their faces. Ideological lectures and strict behavioral instructions for the reunion are delivered by North Korea’s intelligence agencies.

Daily NK: Do the participants hope to receive anything from their South Korean relatives?

If they are able to meet with their relatives, what else could they hope for? They merely want to know that their relatives are alive and well. In fact, the authorities have bigger expectations than the residents.    

According to a resident who had participated in a reunion, the authorities tell the participants in advance: “If your relatives offer you money, don’t decline it. Accept it all.” The authorities trust that the South Korean participants will all bring US dollars.

Daily NK: Why do the authorities advise this?

Source: There are a number of stories about the authorities taking all the money that is given to the relatives. When the first participants started returning from the reunions, others were curious and asking questions, but the participants didn’t say much. We don’t even know if any of them received money. Ministry of State Security officers instructed them to be careful what they say, and so they have been silent.

However, after some time passed, rumors began to circulate. The rumors spread out in bursts after each reunion meeting. The rumors suggest that the South Korean participants know how the North Korean authorities treat the participants, so they try to hide the money and bring it in. According to one story, a South Korean relative stitched some money into an article of clothing. But it looked suspicious, and a Ministry of State Security officer found it by frisking the resident. Another relative hid dozens of US dollar bills in a product and sent it in, which was of great help to their North Korean family.   

Daily NK: Outside of these rumors, are there any other stories that you’ve heard from your contacts?

Source: I know someone who visited his South Korean uncle during a reunion because his father had passed away. His siblings were struggling to get by, and they thought that he might get some money if he went.

Just as they thought, the uncle had stealthily placed an envelope of money in their suit pocket. It wasn’t too much, but the money could have been split between the siblings and helped them a little. There’s propaganda saying that the Ministry of State Security has eyes in the bathroom, so the person wasn’t even able to go in there to count it and see how much they got.   

On the way back to their house, strangers wearing black suits suddenly appeared. They pulled the participant aside and said, “Give some support to your country. Show some patriotism. How much did you receive?” In this way, they openly demanded money.

Daily NK: They took all the money?

The participant didn’t even know how much money he had received, and didn’t know how to respond. If he didn’t give the money up, what kind of consequences would result? So he put his hand in his pocket, took out all the money, and handed it over. The men in black suits took the money, and said simply, “Good job.” Then they told him to be on his way. The participant thought only half would be taken, but instead all of it was.   

In the end, he wasn’t even able to count the money before it was taken away under the pretext of “national support.”

Daily NK: After the participants return home, do they have to do anything further?

When the reunion is over, they go to give thanks to the Party cadres and the Red Cross cadres who recommended them, as well as friends and family. The first to receive such thanks is the lower level Party secretary. My friend’s father participated in a reunion, and when he went to thank the Party secretary, he discreetly gave him a color TV. He had no choice. Because of the secretary, he had received the most precious gift of his entire life.   

In addition, there are other obligations that continue long after the reunion. If the participant starts to live better [earning more money] afterwards, the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Public Safety become curious. They begin to ramp up surveillance to determine whether or not they are being remitted money over the border via broker networks in South Korea, China, and North Korea. This is a type of hint. If the MPS and MSS agents are given a substantial gift, they’ll stop snooping around.     

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