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North Korea reclassifies escapees to South Korea as ‘traitorous puppets’

North Korea's Kim Jong Un. (KCNA/Xinhua via Zuma Press/TNS)
July 17, 2022

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

North Korea has reclassified citizens who escape the country and resettle in South Korea as “traitorous puppets” in order to more harshly punish family members who remain in contact with them, sources in the country told RFA.

The shift could have major consequences for the families left behind that rely on the money their relatives living in the South send home.

More than 33,000 North Koreans have escaped their repressive country and moved to South Korea. Likely hundreds of thousands more live in China, the first destination for escapees who sneak across North Korea’s northern border. Pyongyang has classified these people as “illegal border crossers.”

“These days, at residents’ meetings, authorities are referring to the refugees who fled to South Korea as ‘puppets,’” a resident of the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

“They are terrifying the families of these refugees by declaring that anyone in contact with a South Korean puppet will be punished for treason, even if it is their family members,” she said.

“Puppet” is a term often used to describe the South Korean government to imply its illegitimacy. The shift signals that authorities will emphasize punishing escapees’ families as if they themselves have committed treason, according to the source. 

“This month alone, there have been three cases in the city of Hyesan, where families were caught talking to their relatives in South Korea over an illegal phone that had been wiretapped. [They] are currently being investigated by the city police,” she said.

“Previously, these kinds of families were able to avoid crackdowns by bribing state security agents and police officers with some of the money they received from their relatives in South Korea. But the residents are paying special attention to what the punishment will be this time,” the source said.

For residents in and around Hyesan, making a living by farming has always been difficult due to the area’s mountainous terrain and rough climate, so they have had to find other sources of income. Many families had gotten by by importing and selling Chinese goods. But the border has been closed and trade suspended since January 2020 due to the coronavirus. 

“There are many families of North Korean refugees in the area. They can manage to make ends meet with the support from their refugee family members,” the source said.

“The residents of Hyesan are literally on the verge of losing their livelihoods after the North Korea-China border became blocked,” she said. “Now that they can’t really make ends meet [on their own], they cannot survive without the help of their families [in South Korea]. The residents are therefore criticizing the authorities for regarding those who receive help from escapees as treasonous.

“They ask, ‘What have the authorities done for the people?’”

Residents in nearby North Hamgyong province were angered that the authorities stepped up the smear campaign against escapees, a source there told RFA on condition  of anonymity to speak freely.

“[They] are outraged by the authorities who are socially burying people who only escaped for survival,” he said.

“The people are very resentful toward the authorities, who are now imposing all sorts of control measures but are failing to guarantee the living conditions of the people. If someone who escaped starvation is a puppet, isn’t the government’s disregard for the residents’ livelihoods also the act of a traitor?” the source said.

The source doubted the new designation would stop people from contacting their family members in the South.

“Even if the authorities call them a puppet and don’t allow people to talk on the phone, who is going to obey? No matter how much they call them puppets and threaten to charge their families with treason, people are still going to talk to their family in South Korea,” he said.

“The refugees’ families here are protesting, saying that cutting off contact would mean their own starvation because they are able to live only with the help of their escaped family members. The people have a high degree of antipathy toward the authorities, who reinforce all these control measures to keep us from escaping, even if it means we will starve to death.”

According to statistics from the South Korean Ministry of Unification, at least 1,000 refugees from the North have arrived in South Korea every year since 2002, peaking at more than 2,900 in 2009. 

Under Kim Jong Un’s rule, though, refugee arrivals in the South decreased to slightly more than 1,000 in 2019, then dropped off sharply in 2020, likely due to increased border security during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Only 229 North Korean refugees made it to South Korea in 2020, 63 in 2021, and 11 through March 2022.