Earlier this year, North Korea held elections for its Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA). The moment North Korea announced the election, pin drop silence enveloped the entire country. North Korea kicked its brainwashing machine into overdrive and North Koreans simply acted like cogs in a wheel.
There is no time North Korea stresses obedience to orders handed down by the regime more than during an election. Under this pretense, citizens are expected to watch what they do and say. They are also expected to provide financial contributions for construction funds or various other costs associated with the election. There is nothing they can do but grin and bear it.
I still have vivid memories of what election season looks like in North Korea from when I left the country five years ago, two years after Kim Jong Un came into power.
Economic collapse breathes new life into security agencies
My story unfolds in the summer of 1998 in Chongjin, which is a port city located in North Hamgyong Province. It was near the end of the “Arduous March” and the streets were filled with orphans and swarms of flies that were attracted to the many haphazardly discarded bodies of those who had starved to death. It was in these most dire circumstances that the government decided to hold a political election.
Earlier that spring it had been formally announced that a North Korean parliamentary election was to take place. It was during a time when tensions over the food situation in North Korea were at their highest. People would criticize the government for standing by and doing nothing when people were dying everyday. They blamed Kim Jong Il for making the country worse than it had been under his father, Kim Il Sung.
Those who leveled some of the most severe criticisms toward the regime were from the elite, who had at one point controlled all the wealth of the country. Now, because the economy had collapsed, they were destitute. I still distinctly remember the words of a woman in her sixties who had been extremely wealthy because of her directorship at a bank. She cursed the “good for nothing” regime for its inability to take action and its lack of any sort of plan to fix the economy.
To add fuel to the fire, people still vividly remembered the coup staged by the Sixth Army Corps in Chongjin in 1995.
It was under these circumstances that the government held the election. The only people who were still receiving rations and a salary in the midst of the economic troubles were those who worked for the Ministry of State Security (MSS) and the Ministry of People’s Security (MPS). The government had decided that, going forward, the roles of these two agencies were instrumental in overcoming the crisis North Korea faced.
Employees of the MSS and MPS were the only ones who had any real power and status in the regime at this point. The once powerful Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) elites were no better off than ordinary North Koreans. This prompted a transformation to take place within the class system in North Korea. Everyone had desperately wanted to become one of the party elite before the Arduous March; now, they started to dream of becoming one of the “suits” working at the MSS or MPS.
Households of generational party elites started to groom their children to work in the security agencies. They handed out bribes to officials to move their kids to one of the agencies. Young women also found marriage with someone working at the agencies more appealing than ever. Security officials had once been disdained for the work they did, which involved spying on their countrymen. They were now the subject of widespread envy because of their new, heightened status within the regime.
Security officials often tried to leverage their new-found status to get extra rations. They did this by abusing the system providing rations to families. It was common practice at the time to list the names of one’s parents on family registers, regardless if they lived in the same household or not. Consequently, the people who worked at the two security agencies became stolidly pro-government during the Arduous March period because they found themselves directly benefiting from their expanded role in the North Korean bureaucracy.
An unexpected act of vandalism
As soon as the election was announced, MSS and MPS officials sprung into action. Everyday they would make their rounds within the general populace and at the polling stations. It became commonplace to see them reading political materials to the public and giving warnings about spies who wanted to disrupt the elections. Even at night the officers were hard at work, fervently guarding the buildings where the elections were to take place.
Despite their best efforts, acts of vandalism and dissent near the polling stations occurred frequently. One of the most peculiar incidents I can remember was when someone altered the letters on the sign outside the polling station.
Security officials had illuminated the polling station and stood guard outside all night long. In the morning, however, they discovered that someone had vandalized the sign hung over the main entrance. One of the characters (ㄴ) which had been attached to the wooden sign had been ripped off, changing the meaning from Seoun Gi-Jang (polling station) to Suh Gi-Jang (a funeral home). It was an amazing feat to pull off such a stunt right under the nose of the MSS.
Senior MSS officials dragged all of the guards who had been on duty that night into the local MSS office and berated them over their failure to prevent the incident. The MSS officials in charge of the guards were immediately stripped of their uniforms and relieved of their duties.
Afraid of rumors spreading about the incident, the MSS quickly and quietly replaced the old sign with a new one. If word got out about a counter-revolutionary act of protest, they reasoned that it would serve as inspiration for other acts of political dissent among the people. The MSS did everything in its power to cover-up the incident.
These efforts failed. News quickly spread and the ‘“funeral incident” became the laughing-stock of the town. In the end, the MSS was forced to bury the incident without ever having found the person or persons responsible.
The “quiet shadow”
This incident led to an even bolder act of vandalism occurring just a few days before the election. Someone placed anti-government graffiti on a public toilet on the outskirts of town. The incident sent the entire city into a frenzy. The MSS kept what the graffiti actually said a secret, but it was classified as a “level-one incident.”
The MSS describes situations where someone violates the sanctity of the nation at the highest level as level-one incidents. This designation is usually reserved for insults made towards the country’s leaders, such as Kim Jung Il or his father Kim Il Sung. This time, however, the MSS’s hands were tied; there would be no way to cover it up like they did with the “funeral incident.” If someone found out that the MSS failed to report something of this magnitude to their superiors, they would be all but drawn and quartered.
Ultimately, local MSS officials reported the incident to the Central Party, prompting the dispatch of prosecutors from the Central Prosecutors Office and MSS headquarters. The rumor was that if the culprit or culprits could not be caught, then the local and regional heads of the MSS would be on the chopping block instead. It was commonplace to see MSS officials being pushed out of the ministry and demoted to become manual laborers in situations such as this.
An atmosphere of doom and gloom took over the city as a widespread investigation into the culprit or culprits was launched. Not only were people living in the city called upon to compare their handwriting to the graffiti, but the local military were dispatched to investigate anyone who might have come into the city on business from surrounding provinces. No one was excluded from scrutiny: elementary and middle school students, local businesses, factories and even members of the local people’s committee were investigated.
In the factory I worked at every single worker was called in one day when an MSS official showed up as part of the citywide investigation. No one was allowed to eat or go anywhere until everybody had participated in a handwriting analysis test. As part of the test, we were required to transcribe verbatim from a script that the MSS agent recited for us. The script supposedly included the words that were used in the level-one incident.
After the handwriting tests were completed, the MSS investigator held a private meeting with the factory’s managers and anyone who claimed to have useful information. This made all the factory workers incredibly uneasy, prompting some of them to quietly express dissatisfaction with the actions of the investigators.
Most people like to imagine the culprit behind the level-one incident as bold and courageous. I like to think of them as a hero; someone who risked his or her life to stand up to the government and protest against the injustices taking place within North Korea. This hero quickly became known as the “quiet shadow” among North Koreans in Chongjin. The MSS was ultimately unsuccessful in identifying the culprit before the election, but even though ordinary people forgot about the incident, the “quiet shadow” continued to be a topic of interest for the MSS.
To be continued in Part 2.
The author of this piece is from North Korea and is a journalist at Daily NK.
*Translated by Brian Boyle
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