North Korean authorities recently arrested a university student who had once worked in the Joint Security Area (JSA) for allegedly “fabricating and disseminating false information,” Daily NK has learned. 

The arrest was carried out by Department 3 of the Ministry of State Security (MSS)’s Domestic Counterespionage Bureau on the morning of Aug. 24 while Chang was in a lecture hall at Ryongsong Electrical Engineering Industrial University. The MSS told the school that the arrest was due to a “political statement” he had allegedly made, according to a North Korean source who spoke to Daily NK on condition of anonymity on Aug. 27.

Chang is from Pyongyang and reportedly comes from a reputable class background. After serving in the JSA for eight years, he was admitted to the university last autumn at the recommendation of the department in his military unit responsible for enlisted officers. He was believed to have a “promising future” due to his longstanding interest in electric engineering, so how did it all go wrong?

The story dates back to July when authorities ordered universities to take an “early vacation.” During a birthday party with some friends at home, Chang was asked if he had ever seen any South Koreans. Chang was reportedly excited by the question and began to talk about his experience, even mentioning that there were “defection telephones” (defection bells) installed along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). 

South Korean troops engage in demining operations inside the DMZ. / Image: Yonhap News Agency

He explained that the equipment was set up by the South Koreans to encourage North Korean soldiers or citizens to safely defect from the country. Chang’s friends were reportedly intrigued to hear about something one could only learn by working in the JSA. 

The drinking party finished in good spirits, but the military secrets that Chang had revealed came back to bite him when one of his friends bragged about the story upon returning home. His mother, the head of an inminban (North Korea’s lowest administrative unit) in one of the central districts of Pyongyang, immediately reported the incident to her local Ministry of State Security officer. It turns out she was a “spy” who had worked diligently for the MSS for 30 years.

The incident was reported up the chain, ultimately leading to Chang’s arrest. During the investigation, Chang claimed that he “made a mistake while drunk,” but he appears to be in a grave situation, with authorities reportedly refusing a request from his father to visit him.

According to the source, some believe that he may be hit with additional charges of “inciting defection” and “revealing military secrets,” which could lead to a political punishment where his entire family is exiled from Pyongyang. This is because the authorities are very sensitive when it comes to issues related to South Korea. 

The arrest has also led to an uproar at Ryongsong Electrical Engineering Industrial University. While students are exchanging stories out of curiosity over the reason behind the arrest, the university is asking people not to speak of the incident due to concerns that the school may also face repercussions. 

South Korean military authorities decided to install extra equipment including telephones, intercoms, signs, white flags and reflective belts along sections of barbed-wire fencing at the border after the “knocking incident” of October 2012: a North Korean soldier seeking to defect made it all the way to a South Korean guard post and knocked on the door of a South Korean barracks.

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

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Jeong Tae Joo is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. He focuses on North Korean military matters. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.