This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean authorities are conducting ideological examinations on workers who have returned from Russia, attempting to discover if any have seen South Korean movies or TV shows when they were abroad, sources say.
Workers who were sent to Russia to earn hard currency for the Kim Jong Un regime have been returning to North Korea en masse recently.
Last week, RFA’s Korean Service reported that hundreds of them were spotted at the Vladivostok airport, waiting to return home, possibly as a result of Russia moving to comply with U.N. sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of funds that could be funneled into its missile and nuclear programs.
Under those sanctions, no new work visas are to be issued to North Koreans to work abroad, and all current workers must return to North Korea by the end of this year.
But even though these workers have been sacrificing large percentages of their pay for the North Korean regime, once they have returned, they must undergo a debriefing that delves into their private lives.
“Each organization and company security department is forcing their workers to write self-criticism about their wrongdoings while living abroad,” said a Pyongyang resident in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on September 8.
Self-criticism, or saenghwal chonghwa, is a regular act by which the citizens report to the authorities on any shortcoming they might have pertaining to loyalty to the state. During regularly scheduled saenghwal chonghwa sessons, citizens are also expected to be critical of each other and to collectively determine a plan to correct the shortcomings.
“These workers haven’t even had the time to recuperate from working so hard overseas, but [authorities] are forcing them to write self-criticisms every day,” the source said.
Rather than going through the motions as in normal self-criticism sessions, the authorities are focusing specifically on media the workers have consumed abroad.
“They have to write down whether they have seen any capitalist movies or TV shows while in Russia, listing the titles [of everything they saw] and who they watched the movies with,” said the source.
The source said that authorities are less concerned with any American or Russian movies the workers might have seen than with South Korean films.
“In particular, they are thoroughly questioning on whether the workers have seen “A Taxi Driver,” a South Korean movie about the Gwangju Uprising, which took place when citizens protested against [the South Korean] military dictatorship on May 18, 1980,” said the source.
The Gwangju Uprising was a pro-democracy protest against Major General Chun Doo Hwan who had seized power in a coup d’état about five months prior. In the southwestern South Korean city, government forces fired on protesters, killing many and causing more citizens to rally to the cause.
National media misreported the situation and the government, in an effort to keep the rest of the country in the dark about what was actually happening there, enforced strict censorship and banned foreign journalists from entering the area.
North Korean authorities are now trying to prevent citizens from watching the 2017 film based on the true story of a West German journalist who enlists the help of a taxi driver from Seoul to get in and out of Gwangju with filmed footage of the massacre taking place.
Knowing that the punishment for watching foreign films can be severe, workers naturally deny having seen any South Korean films, the source said.
“Since most of the returning workers are denying [it], the security authorities are encouraging them to report on their colleagues’ illegal activities. However most workers say ‘every man has his faults’, so they continue to pretend not to know anything of their colleagues’ illegal activities,” the source said.
But authorities are treating snitches favorably, hoping to get more of the workers to snitch on each other.
“The security department will close the investigation into those who are willing to write about the misdeeds of their fellow workers. They will quickly stamp [their investigation papers] for them, [confirming their case is closed],” said the source.
“But if they didn’t report misconduct, they will be called into the security department every day for a whole month to be questioned. So some workers write out an adequate list of illegal activities or bribe the investigators, hoping to end the investigation quickly,” said the source.
A pending investigation on a worker can hamper the ability to re-enter society.
“It’s only after getting the confirmation stamp from a security official that they can re-register their membership in the company. They then have to go through some more processes to replace their food suspension certificate with a new certificate that will allow them to receive normal food rations from the Pyongyang city government,” said the source.
Another Pyongyang resident confirmed to RFA that investigations into workers who had returned from Russia were happening in Pyongyang.
“It’s a normal process for when you come back from a foreign country, but the workers are very unhappy about it,” the second source said.
“State security is demanding that the workers state in detail whether they have ever seen a South Korean movie. But, who [among them] would have never seen any South Korean movies on Youtube in Russia?” asked the second source.
Like the first source, the second source said the authorities were especially concerned with 2017’s “A Taxi Driver”.
“Security officials are asking [the workers] many times whether they watched the movie,” the second source said, adding, “[the movie] is widely known among Pyongyang residents.”
“When ordinary people are found to have seen [that and other South Korean movies,] they are sentenced to hard labor,” the second source said.
“On the other hand, even if the workers who returned to North Korea saw the movie, they can end their investigation by writing a self-criticism statement,” the second source said.