Unification Media Group (UMG): Human rights violations continue to increase in North Korea, as the regime seeks to maintain its authority. This series of reports aims to expose these systematic human rights violations as shared by the victims themselves. We now turn to Daily NK reporter Lee Sang Yong for today’s coverage. Can you introduce the background of the story to us?
Lee Sang Yong (Lee): Today’s story comes to us thanks to an inside informant from Ryanggang Province Pochon County, who spoke with Daily NK by telephone. The perpetrator of these crimes against humanity is Ri Chang Ju, a man in his 50s who is the head of the political department of Pochon County’s Ministry of State Security (MSS). According to inside reports, Mr. Ri is committing sexual assault and demanding residents pay bribes.
Mr. Ri was formerly the head of the Organization and Guidance Department unit within Ryanggang Province’s MSS. In that role, he oversaw the city and county level officers of the agency. He was responsible for monitoring and maintaining the officer’s military lifestyle and ideological purity. This is a very central role imbued with significant authority. Misusing this power, Colonel Ri reportedly demands bribes from subunit officers and sexual favors from married women.
UMG: Can you tell us the particulars of this specific episode?
Lee: This incident happened in February this year, according to the inside source. A Pochon County husband and wife in their 30s were watching a South Korean drama when their home was raided by the MSS. The couple was taken in for questioning. Mr. Ri read the initial report and decided to personally intervene to interrogate the couple.
During the course of the interrogation, Mr. Ri said to the wife, “You’re very beautiful. Why did such a graceful woman ever marry such an ugly man and get into this kind of trouble?” To the husband, Colonel Ri said, “Let’s settle this like men.” He then proposed, “If you give me 20,000 yuan (about US $3,000), I can set you free as soon as tomorrow.”
UMG: So, did they pay and get released?
Lee: The situation did not have such a positive resolution. They paid the 20,000 yuan just like Mr. Ri proposed. But the husband was not released right away. When he received the money, Mr. Ri said, “There are many people watching, so just pretend like you’re going off on vacation for a month, and then I will let you go.”
The couple didn’t understand the Colonel’s intentions. The husband actually thought he was trying to help them. Unfortunately, that it not the kind of person that he is.
Mr. Ri resorted to sexual extortion when investigating the wife. He said, “If it was up to me, I would let you out right away. If I help you out in this way, what can you do for me?” After a few days, the wife was released, while the husband continued to be held by the MSS.
UMG: Why did the husband remain in custody while she was released?
Lee: Over the course of interrogating the housewife, Colonel Ri threatened and sexually assaulted her multiple times. Then, even after he released her, he followed her home that evening and assaulted her again.
The roots of this story are even more complex, and give insight into the nature of Mr. Ri’s character. This all started when Mr. Ri saw this housewife, known for her beauty, by chance on the street. From that moment on, he was hooked.
He instructed the regional MSS guidance office to thoroughly monitor her movements. This order was passed down to secret information officers in the MSS, who watched the couple’s house 24/7. The couple had no idea that their house was under surveillance when they were both apprehended in their home for watching the South Korean drama.
The entire operation was orchestrated by the Colonel in order to satisfy his vulgar sexual desires. Because they were arrested on criminal charges, the husband was forced to serve prison time for another month and a half. He was released at that point, and learned that his wife had fallen prey to sexual extortion.
UMG: How could things possibly be so corrupt as to facilitate this type of abuse?
In North Korea, the residents fear the intelligence and security agency above all others. Even hearing the name of the agency inspires terror and anxiety. Mr. Ri is a high ranking member of the MSS, meaning that residents know and fear him. Imbued with incredibly expansive powers, Colonel Ri can do just about anything he wants to.
As head of the political department of the Pochon County MSS, Mr. Ri was in charge of monitoring the political life of MSS agents throughout the county. He could administer political and administrative punishments as he saw fit if the agents were found to have infractions in their party loyalty or ideological purity. In this role, Colonel Ri has access to far ranging and deep wells of information, so if he perceives that any residents are committing anti-party or anti-regime behaviors, he has the power to decide if they live or die.
UMG: Do the North Korean authorities not investigate and pursue charges against criminals in high positions of power like this?
Lee: The political heads of county level MSS offices are selected on the basis of ongoing loyalty and capability assessments. These individuals are given preference and shown favoritism by the regime. The source informed us that even individuals like Colonel Ri, who resort to extortion and sexual assault, are not often punished.
North Korea’s intelligence and security body is, and has been, the guardian of the hereditary Kim dynasty. The agency has gone through both success and downfall, with many in the top leadership positions coming to a bad end. The MSS cadres, seeing this, try to make the most of it while they still have the power and opportunity to do so.