Ideological purity demanded for embedded agents in Olympic group, but bribes remain key factor

Kang Mi Jin  |  2018-02-09 16:12
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Curiosity is growing over the presence of North Korean state security agents embedded within the groups of athletes and supporting staff visiting South Korea this month. Rumors are spreading that a couple of formerly unknown North Korean women's ice hockey team members are actually undercover security agents.

It is typical for North Korea to embed agents in groups that are sent abroad, tasked with directing and conducting surveillance over the other members of the group. The subject of defections has become a matter great concern to North Korea, which sees the rise in contact between their citizens and the outside world as a matter of life and death for the regime.

These concerns are especially heightened anytime that North Koreans come in contact with 'the enemy nation' of South Korea, such as during separated family reunions or sports competitions, and the regime takes the task of controlling its participants very seriously. The process for selecting the agents for dispatch to these events is also known to be rigorous.

"The authorities are carrying out a much more thorough selection process for the agents this time," a source in Pyongyang told Daily NK on February 7. "But as was the case for the 2014 family reunions with the South, a system has arisen where agents are able to amass fortunes by extracting bribes from the participants."

According to the source, the ideological background checks for agents this time is even more severe than in years past. In order to be selected for the Pyeongchang Olympics group, agents had to pass reviews of the ideological purity of their family members extending to the fifth degree.

But even as the authorities tighten their criteria, they still believe that even the most seemingly ideologically pure individuals have the potential to defect, resulting in a recent increase in mandatory ideological training of all citizens.

Despite these attempts to purify the selection process based solely on state loyalty, it is likely that the power of bribes remains key, with individuals offering the largest bribes being chosen in the end for the coveted positions.

"The hopeful agents are all carefully navigating the bribe system," a separate source in Pyongyang said. She explained that the lure of the position inspires intense competition, with every single agent jumping at the chance, expecting "high-quality food and necessities throughout the duration and official rewards at the event's conclusion," even eyeing the mandatory daily reports as an opportunity to achieve promotions.

The agents also view the athletes and other participants under their charge as targets to extract more bribes. One defector told Daily NK on condition of anonymity of an instance where a security agent "received a huge sum in US dollars from a family in exchange for granting them permission to attend the 2014 separated family reunion."

"Others reported on this particular security agent and he ended up being discharged from his position, but people still complained that the agent surely saw the act as worthwhile, knowing he had collected enough money to live even without the job," he added. "I am sure that the situation remains similar (for the Pyeongchang Olympics)."

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

 
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