Repatriated North Korean fishermen face months of interrogation

North Korean fishing boat in Japan's EE
North Korean fishing boat in Japan’s EEZ. Image: Hokkoku Shimbun

An emergency meeting was recently held by the Ministry of State Security (MSS) in North Hamgyong Province following the defection of two of the four North Koreans who landed in South Korea’s Samchok Port on a wooden boat, North Korean sources told Daily NK.

An MSS official from Pyongyang participated in the meeting, whose participants discussed “covering up” the incident to ensure the public would not find out what happened.

“The meeting, held on June 25, was led by three high-level officials from the MSS. The officials told local security officials to ensure that people don’t find out about the incident,” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source.

The central government told local officials – including WPK committee officials, MSS officials, local district officials, and factory officials in Gyongsong, where the boat had left port – to lie about what had happened to the families and friends of the fishermen. They were also ordered to take any measures necessary to stop news of the defections from spreading.

Local officials therefore told relatives and friends of the fishermen that “the boat got caught up in a storm and only two people were rescued. They are now getting medical treatment.” Local officials were not permitted to say anything more than this.

“The four North Koreans were missing for several days and the family of the captain (owner) of the boat along with his neighbors were told by a local MSS official that he had drowned at sea. People were not made aware that two of the four people on the boat had actually returned to North Korea,” a separate source in North Hamgyong Province said.

“The two fishermen who returned to North Korea have been taken somewhere by the MSS to be interrogated.”

North Korean fishermen who choose to return home after being in South Korean custody are immediately interrogated by the MSS. This particular case, however, involves the defection of two of the four fishermen. The two fishermen who returned to North Korea are now likely facing intense scrutiny by MSS officials.

“[The two fishermen who returned to North Korea] are probably facing an intense interrogation,” said a former North Korean fisherman who defected to South Korea in 2018. “There have been numerous cases where people have returned to North Korea after their boats drifted into South Korean waters. All of them have faced the same level of scrutiny.”

The former fisherman also told Daily NK that “[Fishermen] are taken by the MSS, while soldiers are interrogated by the Defense Security Command (DSC). Regardless, they all face up to two or three months of interrogation” and that “Nobody faces severe punishment if they decide to return on their own volition. But they aren’t allowed to work in the fishing industry anymore. The government monitors them for years and they have to be careful because they may be labelled as political criminals if they make a mistake.”

Another North Korean defector who worked in the country’s fishing industry told Daily NK some time ago that “[MSS officials] force fishermen who return from South Korean custody to write down several times how they ended up in South Korean waters, what they told South Korean authorities, and whether they thought positively about South Korea.”

“If the authorities find that there are differences in what the fishermen write over time, they may be forced to participate in ‘ideological education.’ Even if their boat drifts into South Korean waters because of an engine failure, they may face time in a forced labor camp,” the same source told Daily NK.

Some North Korean fishermen who return home are used in state propaganda. Multiple sources reported that as part of the North Korean government’s efforts to increase animosity toward South Korea, the fishermen participate in “lectures” where they say that the South Korean government tried to force them to defect.