In North Korea, the state has two domestic law enforcement agencies, the secret police – officially called the Ministry for Protection of State Security, and the ordinary police – officially the Ministry of People’s Security.
The former’s activities include monitoring society for possible dissent, arresting those who speak against the regime / consume foreign media, conducting censorship, and overseeing most of the concentration camps for political prisoners.
In short, the secret police controls the very way of life for many North Koreans, stripping people of their freedom in the interests of the ruling Kim family.
But while the Ministry for Protection of State Security is clearly a malicious institution, when it comes to ordinary policing of the DPRK, the situation is much less black-and-white, their role also helping to protect society from crime – from petty theft to drug dealers.
JOINING THE REGULAR POLICE
In the DPRK, one does not normally volunteer to join the ranks of the police. Instead, the local Party committee summons young people whom it considers to be worthy candidates and offers them a job. One can of course refuse, but many accept, for the policeman’s job is considered to be prestigious, giving people some power and facilitating eventual entry into the Party.
Furthermore, some policemen – like criminal inspectors and investigators – have IDs which work as a universal travel permit, allowing the person to travel across the country without limitations.
Of course, as all North Koreans know, policeman can regularly extract bribes from local civilians, meaning they have little to worry about when it comes to salary. And when the official monthly salary of even a four-star general in the police would be around $5, it’s easy to understand why one can hardly find non-corrupt policeman in modern-day North Korea.
The recruitment of new police officers is conducted at two levels: high school students are offered the rank of private, while university students are promoted directly to junior lieutenant, should they accept the job. Exceptional students can even be given the rank of lieutenant.
It should be noted, however, that when the committee considers potential candidates, special attention is given to the candidate’s songbun – or caste level – meaning many North Koreans can never become a policeman, no matter how hard they try.
STRUCTURE AND RANK
The structure of the North Korean police’s subdivisioning reflects the country’s administrative structure. Each province has its own police department, and so do cities and counties, with individual police stations at the lowest level.
Like military men, all North Korean policemen have ranks, and the rank structure is identical to that of the army (i.e. a high-ranking police officer would not be referred to as “commissioner”, but rather something like “senior colonel of police”).
Privates and non-commissioned police officers start their job after going through a three to four month long introductory course. Initially, they effectively serve as assistants, supporting the real work conducted by their superiors, before about half of them are eventually promoted to officers.
Almost all daily work in the North Korean police force is conducted by junior officers. From the rank of junior lieutenant to captain, these people constitute the very core of the DPRK police.
As such, senior officers are exactly what they are supposed to be, senior, with the chief of a police station typically being a major, for example. Higher offices in cities or provinces are also occupied with people of higher ranks, and the Minister of People’s Security is usually a three or four star general.
Like in the Soviet Union, though, the DPRK has an unspoken rule that typically prevents a police officer from advancing higher than the four-star rank.
There are three main duty areas that the ordinary North Korean police force takes responsibility for: 1) the formal registration of citizens; 2) the maintenance of a network of informants to monitor the population; and 3) the fighting of non-political crime.
In terms of registration, the North Korean state has files on all its citizens – members of the ruling Kim family may be an exception – which contain a multitude of data that are useful for surveillance purposes.
These files contain a citizens’ name, personal number, sex, date of birth, nationality and ethnicity (almost always Korean, of course), date of ID issuance, songbun and kaechung, place of work, level of education and previously attended schools, Party membership level and career, connections with foreign countries, lists of close and not-so-close relatives, marital status, lists of medal and orders received by the person, whether he/she was imprisoned and in which camp, and, finally a short summary of a person’s life.
The documents to form the basis of such files are numerous, and since they all have a very direct impact on the life and career of a citizen, they have to be filled in very carefully, which is not an easy task.
The second area of responsibility requires the North Korean police to manage a large network of people whose task it is to monitor the population and report suspicious observations. And if the policeman who reads their report finds that there is a potential political offense going on, they may call colleagues from the secret police to take care of the offender.
In his PhD thesis, Kwak Myong-il shows an example of the typical report on one’s neighbors, a translation of which follows, with fictional names being used:
Report on a fellow citizen
Name: Hong Min Su
Residence: Pyongyang, Chungguyok, Namsan-dong
Date of birth: May 1967
Place of work: Heating station, Pyongyang city, worker.
On May 4, 1992, 6:20 AM, Hong Min Su, standing next to a steel pile of the rice seedbed of the second subgroup of the seventh brigade of the collective farm in the Chunghwa district (Chunghwa county, Pyongyang), while participating in the removal of young rice from the seedbed due to being a participant in the People’s Group’s labor mobilization, in the presence of the other members of the people’s group: Kim Kwang Chol (man, 30, Party member), Lee Song Hui (woman, 41, non-member) and myself (Ryu Myong Nam, 35, Party member) said the following:
“Other countries have already fixed their problems with food supply, and we, no matter how hard we work, still can’t feed ourselves. I wish a war would broke out sooner.”
After hearing this Kim Kwang Chol and Lee Song Hui looked at each other and shook their heads and I, Ryu Myong Nam, thought it would be best to say nothing. It cannot be confirmed if he was meaning a war which will lead to the destruction of our country or if it would be the war which we should win.
May 6, 1992,
Reported by Ryu Myong Nam
3) Crime reporting
According to a former North Korean policeman interviewed by this author, the most common non-political crimes in the DPRK are murder, robbery, rape, larceny, embezzlement of state property and gang fighting.
Of course, apart from theft and violent crime, another problem which North Korea faces relates to narcotics.
Drugs are persistent, especially among the elite, with many of them taking drugs, something refugees say can be considered prestigious or cool, even if it may lead to eventual health problems. And predictably, the police are not very effective at combating drug dealers, as the latter are usually rich. Thus even if they get arrested by an honest policeman who would refuse a bribe, it’s always possible for the dealers to provide a prosecutor or judge compensation for being released.
GOOD COP, BAD COP
The reputation of the ordinary police force in North Korea is somewhere mixed.
On the one hand, people don’t like policemen due to their regular bribe extortion. As one of my North Korean friends put it: “The secret police are like a tiger, for when they come for you, you are dead. But the ordinary police are more like a swarm of mosquitoes. They don’t kill you, but they will suck your blood every day”.
On the other hand, while is hard to conceive a situation where the secret police would help an ordinary citizen if something will go wrong, one can probably expect some form of help from policemen in North Korea. Hence, the police are trusted to some extent.
But what happens when things move out of the hands of the police?
A suit against a criminal is usually brought by a prosecutor – not by a judge – just like in the days of the Soviet Union. After a case is investigated it is then brought to the court and the accused is judged.
‘Not guilty’ sentences are rare, but not exceptional: about one in 20 cases ends the accused found ‘not guilty’ by judges and released. One should remember, after-all, that judges take bribes too.
FUTURE OF THE FORCE
After the Kim family regime falls, the new authorities will have to do something with the DPRK’s two police forces.
But while most of the secret police officers would likely deserve punishment, hopefully the new authorities would be wise enough to refrain from subjecting ordinary police officers to serious repressions. With the expectation of the top leadership in the force – who are really more politicians than policemen – these people, who know how North Korean society operates better than many others, will become instrumental in preserving order in post-Kim Korea.
Letting most of them continue in future with their positions therefore seems like a wise decision
Letting most of them continue in future with their positions therefore seems like a wise decision. And once their salaries are brought to a reasonable level, they won’t have to resort to bribes to feed their family, so corruption levels will be significantly reduced.
Eventually, most of the policemen will probably adapt to life in a new Korea and will protect this new society from its criminals.
Cops, after all, will always be needed.
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