Few people know North Korea as well as its police. The job links them to both the country’s elite, the criminal lower class of society, and everyone in between.
They have access to secret documents, often have to cooperate with the secret police and know the system of state control, prisons and other normally restricted parts of the DPRK from the inside.
And, as a recent interview by NK News reveals, they tread a fine line between enforcing the country’s strict laws and the often labyrinthine system of favors and privileges which keeps the ruling party in power.
The following is an interview with a former police major (소좌) who left the North in the mid-2000s. The interviewee has requested his name not to be published.
This interview has been translated as well as edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: How did you become a regular policeman?
In North Korea, one does not become a policeman by their own will. I graduated from an ordinary university and my kyechungwas of “nucleus” category.
There were about 500 or so graduates of the university and the Ministry of People’s Security decided that my songbun and kyechung were good enough and they granted me a rank of lieutenant.
The saw that I am was well versed in law and they sent me to the Kim Jong Il University of Security. I studied there for two years and after graduating became a proper policeman.
NK News: What are conditions for promotions in the police?
The first would be, of course, successful results in one’s job. And since I served when the famine started, connections were quite important. Once or twice a week when your superior goes on a business trip, you are to give him petrol and so on. This is illegal, but you create a powerful partner for yourself.
“Since I served when the famine started, connections were quite important”
NK News: So in the department where you worked, did you have to call the secret police often?
Since 1973, the secret police has been a separate institution from us. While we arrest general criminals, they catch spies, subversive elements, or political criminals.
For example, if we have some kind of incident, like, for example, someone pours diesel fuel on a farm, killing the crops and all the maize, we go out to catch the criminal.
Some of these sort of criminals were motivated by dissatisfaction with some low-level official – they hate the state and thus we gave the case to the secret police. Basically, we have to stay in contact with them at all time, in all cases.
NK News: So if there is some kind of incident that requires your attention, they call the regular police?
Yes, of course they do. And in such cases, we go together.
NK News: So each policeman has a partner in the secret police or do you go with a different person each time?
No, each time the department is different. There are sections responsible for farming-related issues, one related to industry, one to territory and so on. And you go with a person from a relevant department each time.
NK News: Are there cases when regular police take care of political crimes?
There were some a long time ago. There was some guy I suspected of murder, who I chased for 10 years and when I finally got him, I realized that he was a political criminal.
But if I have given him to the secret police – the case would be marked as their success! And all my efforts for 10 years would have been in vain. And I registered him as a simple murderer – he was sentenced to forced labor for life – these are quite ordinary cases.
NK News: The criminal was probably grateful, wasn’t he?
He certainly was! But such cases were really normal. The secret police, too, act that way. They arrest a person suspecting he is a political criminal and then they find out he was an ordinary one – which means they cannot have him as their own success.
So they processed the person as a political criminal anyway – and send him to a resettlement center (kwalliso, 관리소).
There many such cases. In case you are wondering when it changed, it was after the large-scale purge of the late 1990s- early 2000s, officially called the “intensification campaign” (심화조 사건).
On April 30, 2000, we received Kim Jong Il’s instructions that ordinary and secret police should not fight among themselves. And in cases such as, for example, a ten-year investigation of a murder case ultimately going to the secret police, the success record should be marked to ordinary police instead.
NK News: Sounds logical. Could one say, then, that regular police work with crimes in the Penal Code and the secret police deals with crimes outside that legal framework?
No. The secret police also deal with some crimes from the Code. Look at article 60 – the one according to which Jang Song Thaek was prosecuted: “conspiracy to overthrow the government”.
Such crimes cannot be worked on by ordinary police. As far as I remember, these articles – somewhere between 50 and 70 – are supposed to be the secret police’s responsibility.
So, there are cases when the secret police work according to the Penal Code, too. However, normally the secret police has its own courts. But Jang Song Thaek was prosecuted by the secret police’s supreme court…
NK News: That was a special case, wasn’t it?
Yes. This court convenes only during emergencies. Due to Jang Song Thaek’s behavior, this was too important a case and he could have been taken care of without a court.
There are also cases when a state secret is involved or when there is a case of anti-government conspiracy, which cannot be taken care of by the DPRK Supreme Court. In such cases, the secret police’s own supreme court decides.
NK News: Who passes a decision on sending people to resettlement centers? The secret police?
Yes, the secret police. The Security Committee of the Party. People who are involved in conspiracies are executed, of course, but their families and relatives are sent to resettlement centers. Up until 1990, there was a person responsible for this in the secret police, the one who signed it.
“There are policemen who get bribes and some who cannot”
NK News: What was his position?
Chairman of the secret police, of course. And since 1990 these decisions are made in Security Committees in cities, counties, and provinces. Do you know what a “Security Committee” is? It’s called the Security Committee of the Party (당 안전위원회).
NK News: Does it answer to the Party, then?
The Chairman of the Security Committee is often the Chairman of the local Party Committee. Others are Vice-Chairman, chairmen of the secret police, of the regular police, or of the prosecution.
NK News: So the order is signed by the Security Committee, specifying who shall be sent to which resettlement center?
There is a document called “Detailed rules of operation of the Security Committee of the Party (당 안전위원회 운영세칙)” which comes from the Party. It is an internal document.
After the purge I’ve mentioned legal institutions started to ignore the Party and call the people by themselves, thus the regulations say that they should answer to the Party. Thus Security Committees of the Party were born.
NK News: How would you estimate the percentage of income a policeman gets from bribes?
There are policemen who get bribes and some who cannot. Those who do – well, over 90% of their income comes from bribes.
NK News: And those who cannot?
They are poor. These people who work in sections which do not involve direct working with people – armory or registration departments. Or communications, guards or personnel training. They do not work with the population directly in any way.
NK News: How does the situation with Party membership work in the regular police?
A policeman is automatically admitted. That is, if he is an officer, of course. For enlisted personnel, the situation is different.
“At first, homosexuals were executed. Now it is not an offense punishable by death”
NK News: What about them?
Well, it’s 7:3. i.e. 30% are admitted and 70% fail to do so. Not like in the military, where it is the reverse.
NK News: That’s quite surprising.
Since it is a safe and calm place to serve.
NK News: And if you are an officer, on the very first day you are admitted as a candidate member?
No, one has to serve at least for three years before that.
NK News: So at that time you are still a lieutenant?
Many people are already captains! Normally, a senior lieutenant, though.
NK News: And where does one do organizational life before that?
In the police’s Youth League organization.
NK News: What educational institutions do the police control?
The Kim Jong Il University of Security. At the university-level, only one. And some more officers’ academies (군관학교).
For example, North Hamgyong Province has the Provincial Academy of police, and so on.
NK News: Is homosexuality illegal in the North?
It is. The Penal Code says nothing about it, because even acknowledging that it exists is too much. But if one applies the Code, there are punishments for “forcing decadent sexual culture” or something like it.
Some kind of punishment is 100% guaranteed. At first, homosexuals were executed. Now it is not an offense punishable by death.
However, one can be prosecuted for spreading decadent capitalist sexual culture.
NK News: Imagine a father has severely beaten his son. Would such a father face punishment?
Beatings are not punished under DPRK law – he would only be punished if the father beat him to death.
NK News: Even if the child becomes an invalid?
They’d say it’s because the child was not listening and the father was educating him in the spirit of socialism and patriotism. The father may even be praised for that.
NK News: Have you seen people who manufacture porn in the DPRK?
There was a famous actor named Yu Kyong Ae (유경애), the “People’s Actor.” Her son, can’t remember his name – was it Pak Chin?(박진) – this wonderful gentleman made porn, being both the director and the operator and was shot. Ri Wol Suk (리월숙), Pyon Mi Hyang(변미향) – these famous actresses – starred in it.
He sent the films through the Association of Korean citizens in Japan (Chongryon), but took care not to show their faces. They made a lot of money. But the Association reported in back to North Korea and the case was investigated.
The actresses were sent to a labor camp and were later released and were able to resume their careers. And the main instigator, Yu Kyong Ae’s son, was shot. At the Pyongyang Gymnasium.
NK News: Who carries out executions in such cases?
The policemen do.
NK News: The enlisted personnel, correct?
Yes. After a court’s verdict.
NK News: And do they receive some compensation after this? Killing a person is notan easy task.
Not really, but before the execution, they are given alcohol to drink and some meat to eat.
“In the North, there is probably not a single cadre who does not have a mistress”
NK News: And the next day they have to report to their offices as normal?
Yes. Of course, this traumatizes them every time. There are people who guard cells in every police station – and they carry out the sentences.
NK News: Are there regulations regarding sexual assault?
The very concept does not exist in North Korea. Only rape is a crime, since it is, well, a rape. But nothing on other forms of sexual assault.
NK News: I saw in the Criminal Code a regulation saying that if a man forces sex on his subordinate then this is a crime. Was there such a regulation when you served?
There were. Of course, this would be illegal – this is rape what this man is doing. But if the woman really cannot stand him – it is unlikely that he would ever move on her.
Normally, this is all consensual – like sex in exchange for a party admission. In the North, there is probably not a single cadre who does not have a mistress.
NK News: And what happens if they discover that an accused has some connections – like a son or a high-ranking official? Can he be released?
Oh, this is confirmed before one stands before the court – by the investigator and the people responsible for the preliminary trial. This is called Personal confirmation system (신변 확인제도) and is done before the legal procedure even begins, before sending anything to the court.
And if they confirm that at least one of his relatives up to the fourth generation is of “nucleus” kyechung he gets a suspended sentence.
NK News: And what about the special strata?
For these guys, the prosecution is simply not carried out.
NK News: For all from basic and up to hostile class – they all are prosecuted?
NK News: And if one is from the hostile class?
Then their sentence would be, to some extent, more severe.
NK News: Are there more criminals in North or South Korea?
The North has more. In old times there were the same but then the famine came and the state could not take care of the people and more people start to commit crimes in order to survive. All in all, there are four to five times more criminals in the North than in the South.
NK News: And what can you say about the South Korean police? Are there things that need to be improved?
I don’t know, but if we look at the local system, they don’t really have any plans on what to do with North Korea in case of emergency.
In the North, since the 1960s they have people to be appointed up to police substations chiefs. This is called a system of appointed cadres (임명간부제도). I, by the way, was the Chief of Security for the Cheju island. And here there is nothing of the sort.
This is sort of a provisional government to be used in case of unification. South Korea has nothing like this: in case of an emergency in the North, tens of thousands of people may starve.
Murderers need to be punished, too. And the families of the political criminals – one should take care of them, too, in case of an emergency.
NK News: The current minister of People’s Security is Choe Pu Il. If you could have passed a recommendation to him on how to improve the regular police, what would you say?
The decree system (포고문 제도) should be abolished. It causes people who otherwise would have been serving one, two or three years in a camp to be executed.
Dagyum Ji, Seungmock Oh, and Oliver Hotham contributed to this piece.
Few people know North Korea as well as its police. The job links them to both the country’s elite, the criminal lower class of society, and everyone in between.They have access to secret documents, often have to cooperate with the secret police and know the system of state control, prisons and other normally restricted parts of the DPRK from the inside. And, as a recent interview by NK
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.