What Do The Defectors Face?

A group of 41 North Korean refugees who had been arrested in and around Shenyang last month and then temporarily held in Chinese detention facilities became the latest such people to be repatriated last week. Their repatriation took place amidst concerns about the severity of the punishments likely to be meted out by the North Korean authorities.

The level of punishment varies depending on whether an individual is heading for South Korea or simply to China. Those who are presumed to be leaving North Korea for their own survival are sent to labor-training or re-education camps. However, those who appear to be aiming for South Korea are more likely to end up in political prison camps. Some, though not many, face death.

According to defectors, the local National Security Agency categorizes new arrivals accordance to their purpose of defection, and what activities they conducted while in China. There are four categories.

The first category is for persons who are adjudged to have had direct contact with a South Korean agent (from the National Intelligence Service or Defense Security Command). They are defined as spies and executed, and their immediate family members are sent to one of the NSA-run political prison camps. Those who are not immediate family members (son-in-law, daughter-in-law etc) are required to divorce in order to leave the family, and are then exempted from the same punishment.

The second category is ‘impure foreign contact’ and refers to those who have contact with religious groups, human rights organizations or other anti-state actors. Such defectors are also sent to political prison camps, but their family members are not punished.

The third category is for those who the authorities believe were caught attempting to go to South Korea. Such people are sent to political prison camps. Recently, it has been alleged that North Korean defectors are being exclusively interned at Camp No.22 near Hoiryeong in North Hamkyung Province. Family members are sent into internal exile in remote areas.

The reason why there have been many cases of South Korea-bound defectors escaping severe punishment and later re-defecting is because they have either managed to avoid admitting the true purpose of their escape, or because they have been able to bribe NSA agents to keep quiet.

Meanwhile, those in the fourth category, those who are adjudged to have crossed the border for economic or other ‘pure’ reasons, are sent to labor-training camps. This used to be a six month sentence, but in 2009 it was stepped up to one year for first offenses and two years the second time around.

For reasons of regime preservation, Kim Jong Eun has a hostile stance toward defectors. Recent reports from internal sources suggest that he has ordered harsh punishments as a warning to others, and is determined to see the family guilt-by-association system fully implemented for similar reasons.

Therefore, the recently repatriated defectors, whom the South Korean media announced were planning on reaching Seoul, will be placed in the third category. They will be imprisoned in political prison camps, and their family members will probably be forced to join them.

The only bright side is that the case has sparked diplomatic difficulties, and as China claims there is a lack of evidence of them being punished if repatriated, the North Korean authorities will need to be conscious of their northern neighbor in handling the case.

If the international community continues to demand to know these defectors’ identities, then North Korea is likely to feel the pressure. Even though North Korea never discloses personal information on repatriated defectors, there are now various other ways to access the information, so it will be hard for the authorities to cover it up entirely.

On this, Yoon Yeo Sang of Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a group which records testimony of human rights abuses for future application, commented, “If North Korea were able to deal with them as they wished then harsh punishment could be expected, but because of intense interest from the international community even the North Korean authorities will have to be a bit careful.”