North Korea surveillance state

North Korea operates as a vast surveillance state, with a menacing state security department called the Bowibu as its backbone. Its agents are everywhere and operate with impunity. The government also operates a kind of neighborhood watch system. Every district in every town or city is broken up into neighborhood groups of 30 or 40 households, each with a leader who is responsible for coordinating grass-roots surveillance and encouraging people to snitch. Following are excerpts of testimonies of defectors from North Korea, all of whom defected during the past 4-5 years:

The young mother”: “People in each neighborhood association are always checking up on each other. If one family seems to be living better than everyone else, then all the neighbors try to find out how they are making their money. …Nobody has to be asked to bring that wealthy family down and make sure that they lose their money. …That’s why it’s important not to show off any wealth.”

The farmer”: “We often heard and saw how Chinese people had money because Chinese people used to come to North Korea to sell things….I thought about the outside world, but if you say, ‘I want to go to China or South Korea,’ then it can be reported by an informant to the security services. You can think it, but you can’t say it. You never know who is going to snitch on you.”

The rich kid”: ‘There were youth leaders who would patrol around, looking for things that we weren’t supposed to be doing. If you were wearing jeans or skinny pants, or if you had a manicure or your hair was too long, you would get in trouble. They would sometimes check your phone to see if you had any South Korean songs. I got busted for this, but I got out of it by buying them a box of 20 bottles of beer.”

The teenage prisoner”: “When I was 16, I was staying at my grandma’s house and there was a banging on the door late at night. Two secret police officers took me to the police station and asked me: “Where are your parents?” I told them I didn’t know. (It turned out that they had gone missing, and my mom’s business associates said that she was the mastermind behind this big smuggling operation.) The police yelled at me: ‘You’re just like your mother. You probably have fantasies about China, too.’ They slapped my face about five times.”

The phone connector”: “The first time I went to prison, I had been caught helping people make phone calls to their relatives in South Korea. I was sentenced to four months’ hard labor, building a road on the side of a mountain that they said we needed in case there was a war. The men did the digging, and the women had to carry rocks and soil.”

[Sources of quotations: The Washington Post]

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