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Wife of ethnic Chinese resident in North Korea sentenced to hard labor for illegal cell phone use

Chinese woman on cellphone (Gauthier DELECROIX/Flickr)
November 24, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in North Korea have reportedly sentenced the wife of an ethnic Chinese resident to hard labor for illegal cellphone use, signaling that the leniency the community has enjoyed as foreign citizens has possibly come to an end.

Called Hwagyo in Korean, ethnic Chinese residents are not North Korean citizens and as such are not afforded certain rights that citizens are — they are ineligible to join the ruling Korean Workers’ Party or hold public office, for example.

But because of their foreign status they have traditionally had certain privileges in their daily lives.

North Koreans must attend indoctrination sessions, must only consume state-approved media and are under constant surveillance. Until recently, however, Hwagyo have rarely attracted much scrutiny.

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They have also been allowed to travel abroad since about 1980 and generally North Korean authorities were more lenient about violations of minor rules by members of the Chinese community than with citizens.

North Korean-citizen family members of Hwagyo also enjoyed leniency, but sources say that it appears that this may no longer be the case.

“In mid-October, the wife of a Hwagyo [resident] was sentenced [to hard labor] for illegal phone calls in Onsong County,” said a source from North Hamgyong province to RFA’s Korean Service on Novermber 11.

According to the source, the sentence was harsher than most expected.

“Usually the immediate family members of Hwagyo [residents] are only fined when they get caught using illegal cellphones, but this time the judicial authorities are giving [the whole community] a strong warning [through this harsh sentence],” the source said.

The source said that the sentenced woman was not Hwagyo herself, but a North Korean in her late 30s married to a member of the community.

“She has been working as a remittance broker, making calls freely and using her husband’s Hwagyo status to justify it,” the source explained.

“Usually whenever there’s a government crackdown on illegal cellphone use, residents hide their illegal phones and stop making international calls, but this woman has been free to work as a remittance broker for the families of defectors,” said the source.

“She would show off her friendship with foreign affairs officials in charge of Hwagyo affairs,” the source added.

The source said the woman had fallen afoul of the authorities before, but had never been seriously punished for it.

“Although [she] was caught several times by wiretapping before, she was able to bribe [the authorities] with large sums of Chinese money to get out of trouble,” the source said.

“Word spread among the people in Onsong that the Hwagyo family was making money by conspiring with the Security Department,” the source added.

A second source told RFA that the sentence was unexpected.

“It was known that a powerful person [in the Security Department] has her back, so people expected that she would merely be fined again,” the second source said.

“But after a three-month joint investigation by officials in the provincial branch of the State Security Department and the national headquarters, [she] got seven years of hard labor,” said the second source.

The second source said the sentence was just the latest in ever-tightening controls for the Hwagyo community.

“[They are] making it difficult for them to get visas to visit China and travel certificates for border trips. It’s like they’re putting the brakes on their departure,” the second source said, referring to the special visas residents must acquire to leave North Korea.

“Many Hwagyo have been working in China in various industries or making money by trading goods, and [authorities are now] blocking their livelihoods,” the second source added.

The second source said that the sudden attention on the community is confusing given the state of relations between North Korea and China.

“I know that control and crackdowns on Hwagyo have never been as severe as it is right now. At a time when relations with China are very good, the entire Hwagyo community is feeling uneasy, because it is not clear why the State Security Department is putting pressure on them.”

Hwagyo in North Korea are not recent immigrants from the PRC. Most entered the Korean peninsula at a time when the Republic of China (ROC) controlled the Chinese mainland or during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949).

During the Korean War, many Hwagyo in North Korea fled to South Korea. Today in the South, most Hwagyo who have not naturalized as South Korean citizens hold ROC citizenship but have few or no ties to Taiwan, the territory currently controlled by the ROC.