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North Korea sends 30 Pyongyang families of missing overseas workers into internal exile

Workers at Taedong River in North Korea. (Roman Harak/Flickr)
July 12, 2020

North Korea has banished 30 Pyongyang families to rural mountainous areas because their immediate family members working overseas went missing and are suspected to have fled to South Korea or other countries, sources in the North told RFA.

The families who were sent into internal exile were mostly the families of workers North Korea sent to Russia to earn foreign currency for the government, large numbers of whom stayed in Russia despite U.N. nuclear sanctions that required them to return home at the end of 2019.

“In June, 30 families from Pyongyang were sent into internal exile,” a senior official from the capital told RFA’s Korean Service.

“Most are families of workers dispatched to Russia. The authorities just kicked them out of the city without informing them of whether or not their husbands or sons are even alive after the overseas workers went missing,” the source said.

North Korea routinely punishes people for crimes committed by their family members as a way to keep people in line. Internal exile, however, is usually reserved for the families of serious criminals imprisoned within the country, but appears to be increasingly used to punish the families of defectors and refugees.

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According to the Pyongyang source, the abrupt banishment goes against precedent in revoking the right to live in the capital, considered such a privilege that a Pyongyang residential permit is a symbol of elite status. Residents of the capital of 2.87 million people can enjoy modern conveniences unavailable in the countryside.

The expulsions come amid a government campaign to discredit North Korean exiles, after groups based in South Korea sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets on balloons. Authorities have recently started branding North Koreans who have overstayed their visas to work in China as traitorous “defectors” after long looking the other way because they send money back to the North.

“In the past, when Pyongyang citizens were sent to internal exile, the authorities always notified them of the area [they would be sent to] and the date of exile in advance, but the families exiled in June left without knowing why they were being banished or where they would be sent,” the source said, adding that they were moved to the mountains in North and South Hwanghae provinces.

Demotion to the undeveloped rural areas of the country is a disgrace, and the government sent the families of the missing overseas workers away even though it is unclear why they went missing.

The source said that in the past, disgraced citizens were internally exiled to areas north of Pyongyang, but these days they are sent south of the city.

“If they are sent to the mountainous area north of Pyongyang, they are likely to try to escape North Korea through the Sino-Korean border to reconnect with their missing family members,” the source said.

“Whenever the situation either at home or abroad is difficult, the authorities try to tighten internal discipline by controlling and censoring residents. At the large meeting of the Political Bureau held on June 7, the Highest Dignity mentioned how Pyongyang citizens enjoy lives of convenience,” said the source, using an honorific term to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Another source, a resident of South Hwanghae province who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA Tuesday that four families had been banished to remote villages there.

“[They] were moved down to Ryongwol village and Changgom village. All of them are families of workers sent abroad. They were sent into internal exile because the head of their family went missing overseas,” the second source.

The two tiny villages are situated in rural Sinwon county, which had a total population of about 83,000 as of the 2008 North Korean census.

“We know that there are several families who have been kicked out from Pyongyang who were placed in Chaeryong county here in South Hwanghae and Sinkye county, North Hwanghae,” the second source said, adding that upon arrival the families had no place to live.

“They are temporarily staying in the propaganda office of the work group they have been assigned to,” the second source said.

“Usually when people from the city voluntarily move to the rural areas, authorities are keen to try to help resolve any of their difficulties. The party committee of their villages conducts home visits and interviews,” the second source said.

But those forcibly sent out into rural areas do not receive the same courtesy.

“Local officials pay no attention to the people that were sent into internal exile. They just push them to show up for farm work starting the very next day after they are exiled,” said the second source.

A North Korean refugee who asked to be identified only by his surname Lee, settled in South Korea after being sent to Russia to work as a lumberjack.

Lee told RFA, “Dozens of North Korean workers who were selected to earn foreign currency in Russia leave their workplaces every year and go into hiding. Most of them are still in Russia, trying to find a way to go to South Korea or a third country.”

Most of the workers North Korea sends abroad work long hours in the construction or hospitality industries in China and Russia. They typically keep only a small fraction of what they earn, forwarding about 90 percent of what they earn to the North Korean government, sources familiar with labor exports have told RFA.

Sanctions enacted by the U.S. and UN, intended to deprive Pyongyang of cash and resources that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs mandated that all North Korean workers were supposed to have returned home by the end of 2019.

Several RFA reports showed that Pyongyang was ignoring the sanctions by sending workers abroad after the deadline because the government desperately needs funds to keep the country afloat.

RFA was unable to independently confirm that the 30 families were officially exiled.