North Korean authorities have put out a wanted notice for two young men in their late 20s who escaped while they were being transported to a forced labor camp after being convicted for using illegal foreign-made mobile phones.

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Thursday that the two young men were being sent to Hamhung Forced Labor Camp after undergoing preliminary hearings and a trial in Hoeryong for using illegal mobile phones. On the train, however, they knocked out their guard by hitting him in the head and escaped. The source said the authorities have gone on high alert in several areas along the border and put out a wanted notice.

The two youths made their living smuggling prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. They reportedly worked briefly as “brokers” moving money across the border.

In March, they were arrested for engaging in “non-socialist behavior” after using illegal foreign-made mobile phones. After several months of preliminary hearings and a trial, they received sentences of 13 years of forced labor. They complained to court officers that their sentences were excessive.

They continued to complain even while they were being transported to the labor camp, protesting to their guard that “they weren’t involved in human trafficking or drug smuggling” and that they received heavy sentences “just for doing a bit of smuggling with Chinese phones at the border.”

Household near the Chinese border in North Hamgyong Province
Household near the Chinese border in North Hamgyong Province. Image (June 2019): Daily NK

In particular, comparing their situation with high-earning money “brokers”, they said they “couldn’t make a good living” and expressed extreme displeasure with how the authorities “take bribes to release people who commit many crimes while making a lot of money but come down hard on guys like us.” 

In the end, with the train stopped at Gilju Station for maintenance, the pair told their guard that they needed to step out to go to the bathroom. Coming back to the train, they bashed the guard in the head, took the keys out of his pocket, undid their handcuffs and escaped out a train window.

The source said the government responded to reports of the incident by ordering that court officers and “unified commands on non-socialist and anti-socialist behavior” nationwide to “frankly inform” all prisoners currently in pre-trial lockup of the incident and catch the pair “without fail” to show others “what judgement awaits those who scoff at the nation’s laws.”

Public safety, security and police officials in North Hamgyong Province have launched 24-hour operations to arrest the pair. They are engaging in an all-out effort to catch the duo, sharing their height, clothing, photographs and other important information with the border patrol, the so-called “Storm Corps” and even inminban (people’s unit) members.

In particular, North Korean authorities have reportedly threatened that if anyone like the pair approaches the border, they will be “unconditionally” fired on to prevent them from illegally crossing into China. If they do cross the border, those manning the checkpoints will face heavy “legal” punishments for violating emergency quarantine laws with their carelessness.

The source added that the government said it would give promotions and commendations to people who contribute to a “successful handling of the situation.”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Jong So Yong is one of Daily NK's freelance reporters. Questions about her articles can be directed to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.