Former North Korean official escapes prison, arrested after two days

Aerial view of Kangdong Correctional Labor Camp
Aerial view of Kangdong Correctional Labor Camp. Image: Google Earth

A former high-ranking official imprisoned at a correctional facility escaped prior to the holiday for Kim Jong Il’s birthday (February 16), leaving North Korean authorities scrambling to figure out what happened. Measures have been put in place to the recurrence of a similar incident, North Korean sources have told Daily NK.

“The former vice director of Pyongyang’s Overseas Economic Committee, identified only by his family name Kim, escaped from the Kyohwaso No. 4 (Kangdong Correctional Labor Camp) on March 1. He was sentenced to 15 years of forced labor for stealing and wasting state assets,” a South Pyongan Province-based source told Daily NK by phone.

“He was captured after just two days on the run, but prison authorities are investigating what happened and how to avoid a similar incident in the future.”

The source reported that prison authorities were concerned that they would face punishment for allowing such an incident to occur before Kim Jong Il’s birthday as well as the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) elections on March 10, and they moved quickly into damage control.

“After Kim was arrested, the prison department director at the Ministry of People’s Security (police, or MPS) sent a proposal to his higher-ups proposing measures for dealing with similar situations in the future,” he said.

“A day after the proposal was received by his superiors, the MPS’s Preliminary Examination Department handed down an urgent order to the MPS’s Prison Department.”

The MPS’s Prison Department manages the country’s correctional facilities and handles the imprisonment of criminals, as well as the monitoring of all prisons in the country, amnesties, and reductions in prison sentences. The MPS’s Preliminary Examination Department handles interrogations relating to criminal investigations of rape, murder and other serious offenses, and provides support for investigations of arrested suspects by prosecutors’ offices, and monitors the establishment and operation of detention centers (which are used to detain suspects until sentencing).

The North Korean authorities seem to consider the escape by the former official as very serious. Just two days after the man was arrested, an order was handed down to carry out measures that would prevent any such incidents from occurring again.

However, the Preliminary Examination Department is not authorized to hand down orders to the Prison Department. This means that the order to put in place prevention measures was simply transmitted to the prison department by the preliminary department, or was handed down by senior officials to both departments at the same time.

The order included instructions for the creation of an inspection team from the Central Inspection Committee to conduct an inspection of the prison in question, and instructions to report the results of this inspection to the Party Center (Kim Jong Un). This suggests that the order was handed down by a high level department within the Party’s Central Inspection Committee.

The order was made up of three items. The first item included the following instructions: 1) The Central Party’s Party Inspection Committee will create an emergency inspection team made up of 10 members (the vice director of the MPS Prison Department, two vice directors from the Political Department, two managers from the Organization and Guidance Department, two members from the Investigation Department, two managers from the Preliminary Examination Department, and one manager from the Rear Department); 2) An in-depth Party-led inspection of Prison Department employees from the Production Department director-level and below will be conducted and will encompass their political-ideological state, organizational life, the order maintained in prisons, and the situation in the rear. This inspection process will begin on February 7 and occur over the period of a month until March 7. The results of the inspection will be reported to the central party.

The second item within the order states that the prisoner’s escape “occurred before The Day of the Shining Star (Kim Jong Il’s birthday) on February 16, which means that it has serious political implications,” and ordered that “a plan to show the ‘last days’ of the prisoner to other prisoners in the correctional facility system be created, reported up the line, and carried out under the guidance of the party.”

According to a separate source in South Pyongan Province with knowledge of the case, the North Korean authorities have thus ordered that the man be made an example out of to deter other prisoners, and likely faces a public execution.

“Kim is now being held in a solitary cell in the main facility of the Kangdong Correctional Labor Camp’s Preliminary Examination Department and is awaiting punishment,” he said.

The third item of the order states: “Warnings have been given to other prisoners [about escaping] so an airtight plan will be created and carried out aimed at increasing the level of legal punishment towards those prisoners who challenge the trust and consideration of the party.” This suggests that prisoners will be more closely monitored and new restrictions will be put in place.