The dilemma of leaving my family behind in North Korea

Ask a North Korean: What happened to the family you left behind in Pyongyang?
January 23rd, 2014

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.

This week, Zelie W of London asks:

How are defectors’ families treated in North Korea? Do you know what happened to the family you left behind in Pyongyang?

Many years have passed since I escaped from North Korea. My father and relatives are still there, but fortunately my mother and sister have managed to escape and we’re living a new life.

Of course, I will forever feel sorry and worried for my father, who we left behind in North Korea. Also, since my father and the rest of my relatives live in Pyongyang, which is very far from either the southern or northern borders, it’s dangerous and difficult to get in touch with them.

A few years ago I managed to reach my father and I’ve been able to receive a photo and a letter from him. Still, I can’t even think about trying to reach him by phone or see him in person: My father is currently under heavy surveillance in the North.

When my mother escaped from North Korea before I did, North Korea’s security agency immediately put our family under strict surveillance. They monitored our every move, and were able to notice within only a day after our escape.

My friends were subject to days of torture and interrogation. As they didn’t even know that I’d left the country, they didn’t suffer retaliation as severe as being sent to a prison camp or eviction from Pyongyang, though, and my father was able to avoid punishment with the aid of some party officials who vouched for him. Plus, my father is highly educated and, as he has earned a good reputation in the North, I imagine the regime couldn’t treat him harshly because they are conscious of public opinion.

“My father was able to avoid punishment with the aid of some party officials who vouched for him”

So how does North Korea treat the families of those who escape? A few decades ago the expression “North Korean defector” didn’t even exist, and if someone escaped from the North his or her family would disappear and never be heard from again. Escape from the country was regarded as no less severe a crime than crossing over to the South during military service and defecting. As in that case, the remaining family members would be sent to concentration camps. It was the Cold War, and the next three generations in the defector’s family would be subject to punishment.

Defectors’ family members remaining in the country who live close to the border are allegedly being forced to relocate to inland towns far from the border. This proves that North Korean defectors and their families are considered a serious problem for the regime. It has created a variety of changes among the people around them, because they send money and outside information to their families.

Because of this, the government has attempted to cut off all contact between defectors and their family members in the North as well as prevent and discourage more defections. They have tried to send a warning by sending defectors’ entire families to prison camps, and they’ve also taken repressive measures to create fear among the general public.

All those efforts have failed.

These days, they’re encouraging defectors to return to North Korea, using their remaining family members as collateral. Once the defectors return to the North, they’re forced to tell of the negative aspects of capitalism at press conferences to discourage more North Koreans from fantasizing about a capitalist society.

This has also failed.

Those returning to North Korea are no longer as uninformed as in the past. They were once starved, shabby and unkempt, but now they’ve come home looking sophisticated, better than ever. No matter how much they talk about the terrible parts of capitalism at press conferences, their neighbors and colleagues won’t believe them. How could they, when the person who once looked like a beggar returns home looking classier than the party officials? In the end, ruthless government repression and tricks cannot hide the truth.

So how bad was the government repression against remaining families of defectors in the past? People were subject to punishment to different extents, depending on where they lived. If someone from a border town with a high number of defectors was sent back from China, they would serve forced labor for three-to-six months. Many would be starved and beaten to death. Yet, they wouldn’t be labeled political prisoners or even criminals. Most of them would then escape again to China after completing forced labor. Furthermore, family members would be allowed to visit them in labor camps and it would be possible for them to be released relatively soon.

There were so many such defectors that the government couldn’t label all of them political prisoners, and they knew they couldn’t stop them entirely. So, unless they’d tried to defect to South Korea or converted to Christianity, they weren’t sent to concentration camps. Plus, defectors sent back to North Korea were from more than one city, and the government didn’t have the means of transportation or enough officials to take all of them back to where they used to live. Plus, the regional branch of the security agency didn’t travel all the way to the border to take the prisoners home. That’s why former defectors from these assorted towns near the border were all treated the same.

Pyongyang was different, though. Security officials in Pyongyang would immediately send a brigade to forcefully bring back a defector from Pyongyang if they had been to China. They would go through an interrogation process lasting more than a year, and many would die. Their families would be sent away to remote rural towns or prison camps.

“When Hwang Jang Yop defected to South Korea, his entire family, including distant relatives, were sent to prison camp”

This may have been effective in discouraging North Koreans from rebelling against the government. When Hwang Jang Yop defected to South Korea, his entire family, including distant relatives, were sent to prison camps. Some of them didn’t know who he was, and had no idea they were related to him. Oddly, the family members closely related to Hwang were sent to remote towns in the mountains because the government was worried about public opinion.

This “guilt-by-association” system can be an obstacle for relatives: For example, for military officers to be promoted, the government first runs a security check on even the distant relatives on both sides of family. Pilots in the North Korean Air Force, for instance, are from flawless families. This is not assessed based on their abilities or qualifications; if even one person in the family has defected from the country or committed a crime, they cannot expect a promotion. It is more crucial to prove how loyal their family is towards the regime.

However, while the families of defectors remaining in North Korea are faced with disadvantages and retaliation from the government, the regime is well aware that they cannot persecute all such families. Politically, they may be subject to suppression and isolation, but they’re becoming wealthier and richer. The amount of money defectors send to their families in the North adds up to millions of dollars.

For this reason, family members of defectors in the North are leading a wealthy lifestyle and they’re in demand as the most desirable spouses there. Furthermore, security agents and police take bribes from them, and in return their records can be cleared of crimes and the records of their defecting or missing family members may be deleted. In fact, there are pilots and military officers with one or two defectors in their families.

North Korea is going through changes. Maybe we should say the change has already come, as the families of defectors have obtained a new status in North Korea.

Got A Question?

Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.

Editing and translation by Elizabeth Jae

Artwork by Catherine Salkeld

Recommended for You

The limits of North Korea's plastic surgery industry

The limits of North Korea's plastic surgery industry

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week's question is: We’ve heard before that plastic surgery…

May 6th, 2015
Low 'Net worth: North Koreans' limited grasp of the World Wide Web

Low 'Net worth: North Koreans' limited grasp of the World Wide Web

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about. This week Colin from the UK asks: How pervasive is the Internet in…

April 30th, 2015

About the Author

Ji-Min Kang

Ji-min is an “Ask a North Korean” contributor. He is in his late 20s and left Pyongyang in 2005. He can be reached at [email protected]

Join the discussion

  • Maozhuxi

    You are simply wrong about Mao’s army at Jinggangshan. Unless you can provide evidence or facts about it just saying not a single peasant took part in the peasant militia is a rather stupid statement. What can I expect from someone who believes in imaginary things…

    You can view a preview of this book on google books, it is in English in case your Chinese is bad.

    • Kenneth Vaughan

      What I said was, i am NOT saying that not a signle peasant took part in the army.

  • Ishihara Yumi

    I wonder if the common populace of North Korea knows how ridiculous their government looks to the rest of the world. Some of those stories read like the comics section in the paper because the lies are so outlandish and unbelievable. It’s funny (perfect golf score, successful space landing on the sun) but it’s also so heartbreaking and sad.

  • Xio Gen

    But how is money sent to them without alerting authorities? This is confusing.

  • Xio Gen

    Capitalism is not a problem. Unfettered social Darwinist capitalism is a problem.

  • Maozhuxi

    Lies by Chosun Ilbo and in result ‘by this website’ were once again proven false. Hyon Songwol was not executed and this summer appeared on TV. Chosun Ilbo makes up stories about North Korea all the time.

  • Elliot Shayle


  • Hanhwe Kim

    Mr. Maozhuxi, I assure you I am a real person and not a troll. I am an IP attorney working in Seoul. I also do pro-bono work for an NGO that tries to help South Korean POWs who have been held in North Korea for over 60 years.

  • Syafiq Solehudin

    Yeeahh damn to all of you in North Korea. You guys are stupid why you listen to your crazy ruler. Are you really born in this world to listen to someone that is bad and mean. Listen to yourself. Are you that dumb and retard inside. Why be afraid. World is going to end anyway. Fight for your own rights.