A North Korean family who were preparing to escape to South Korea were arrested and interrogated by members of the Ministry of State Security (MSS) last month, sources in the country say.
“A woman living near Ryanggang Province’s border with China was arrested by MSS agents in June as she was preparing to cross the border. She is now being interrogated by the MSS,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on July 27. “She was arrested while calling her husband, who had already arrived in South Korea.”
The woman confessed to calling her husband nine times in the previous month during her interrogation, according to the source, who added that “attempting to defect and calling someone in South Korea are both severe crimes.”
She said that the North Korean authorities will likely use the woman’s case as an example and punish her severely, given that the authorities have been placing more emphasis on criticizing South Korea due to concerns that residents will “fantasize” about life in South Korea as inter-Korean bilateral ties improve.
The incident has since been labeled as an example of the dangers of improving inter-Korean and US-North Korea relations. The case was cited in political materials for education seminars and the authorities have warned residents that “anyone attempting to defect is an anti-state criminal.”
In their reform of the criminal code in 2015, the North Korean authorities added the “crime of making illegal international calls” that would result in a sentence of one year in a disciplinary labor center (rodong danryondae) or up to five years in a correctional labor camp (rodong kyohwaso). Since Kim Jong Un came to power, crackdowns and monitoring of those suspected of defecting has increased and those who attempt to defect to South Korea are generally punished severely.
A separate source in Ryanggang Province who corroborated the report revealed that the MSS was alerted to the woman’s activities by her neighbors.
The woman reportedly sold off many of her possessions and neighbors witnessed several people moving things out of her house. “Most people wouldn’t attract attention for this, but her husband had already defected so this caused suspicion,” the additional source said.
“A friend of hers heard the women call her son, who is serving in the military, to come home quickly,” said the source. “The friend thought this was strange and started talking about it with her neighbors […] They reported her to the MSS because they guessed that calling her son back home meant that she was going to defect.”
The MSS agents who responded to the report installed monitoring devices near the woman’s house. After recording her conversations with her husband over three days they arrested her during the middle of a call.