Security forces use housing registration to collect bribes

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2017-03-04 13:13

Daily NK and Unification Media Group will be interviewing victims of abuses and broadcasting excerpts of the recorded testimonies to listeners in North Korea as part of broader efforts to support the Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea, established in November 2016 pursuant to South Korea's North Korean Human Rights Act. It is hoped that this will raise awareness among the North Korean population that the outside world stands in solidarity against their oppression, as well as serve as a warning to the perpetrators that they will one day be held accountable.

As crimes against humanity continue in North Korea, so do calls for the authorities to finally take responsibility and put an end to them. The UN Human Rights Office in Seoul continues to document these abuses as well as victim testimony. The South Korean government through the Center for North Korean Human Rights Records is also gathering information to create a legal basis for prosecuting the perpetrators of these crimes. By listening to the accounts of the victims themselves, we may better understand the urgent need for international action on ending North Korea's human rights abuses.

Today we are speaking with Park Mi Young, a defector once labeled as an illegal resident and forced out of her home by the North Korean authorities.


Thank you for joining us today. Could you please first tell us a bit about yourself?


I was born in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, and lived there until I escaped in June 2014, finally making it to South Korea in October of that same year.


Can you please tell us about your experience being expelled from your home by the authorities in the North?


I originally lived in a village in the countryside called Kapsan, but later moved into a house in Hyesan belonging to my husband's parents. However, because my husband was a university student at the time, we were not able to complete the housing registration. In North Korea, when a person moves from the countryside to a city, they must fulfill a number of criteria to become properly registered. One stipulation required was that my husband be working either in the military or the mining or railway sectors in order to be considered a legally registered resident. But since my husband was only a university student, we did not meet these requirements. 


So I would normally have to become the head of the household by holding an official job in the city. But, paradoxically, as an unofficial resident who was not from the area, I was not able to find a job. I was able to make a living working at the markets, but this did not count for household registration. Despite my husband's parents, who were official residents, giving us the home, we were still unable to register. We nevertheless lived as unofficial residents for 8 years - from December 2005 until March 2013.


What is the official process for moving and obtaining official residence registration in a new city? How would you receive permission to make such a move?


Permission is obtained essentially through being registered. So for example, when a person relocates within a certain district in a city, as long as they still fulfill the specific job-related criteria, then the local police and political security agents should provide a document approving the move. I remember wondering after I first came to South Korea how I could move from Gimpo to Seoul, since I was used to that kind of system. In the North, a person must receive permission to change residency from both the regular and political security officers in charge of the specific district of the city. If one expects to receive permission, then a bribe is almost always required. 


Given the strict criteria set by the authorities, moving house seems to be a fundamentally difficult task, especially considering the extra requirements when moving from the countryside to the city, or from the outskirts to the center of a city. How exactly were you able to pull this off?


I was originally born in Hyesan but moved out to Kapsan just south of there when I was in high school. I worked at a collective farm until I met my husband some years later, and then I moved back to Hyesan with him. Because I was considered to be a farmer, and my husband was not, we were not able to receive our housing registration. In North Korea, a farmer is simply expected to marry another farmer. There is a saying, 'lay down your roots on your own land', which basically discourages rural people from thinking about moving to the city. But of course all young girls from the countryside want to move to the city anyway. 


Although most people want to make this kind of move, its not so easy. A lot of bribes need to be paid along the way, and I had to officially withdraw from my position at the collective, which itself is a very complicated process. You first have to receive various approvals from the collective head office, including from the person in charge, and then from the local government management committee. Then you need to go to the collective's security office, the administrative committee office, and back to the head office for more confirmations and approvals. After that, you must request permission from the local military unit, and with that in hand, go back to receive final permission from the collective's security agents. Every single one of these steps involves yet another bribe. 


I understand that you moved to Hyesan without receiving the necessary permission and were harassed by security agents for this. Can you tell us about this experience?


After we first moved into the new house, we started hearing from the authorities and were harassed for failing to be properly registered. We were able to continue living there for so long because we kept bribing the local officials to let us stay, although I was constantly worried. Things became worse in January of 2013 when I ended up helping someone cross over into China. This woman originally came to me offering money if I helped her reach her family there. I ended up agreeing and staying in China for about a month. After returning to Hyesan, the authorities caught wind of my activities and ramped up their surveillance of me. 


The truth is that I ended up going back to Hyesan because I couldn't bear the thought of having left my home. I wasn't even thinking about South Korea at the time. Before I left, I thought I would just simply help the girl and return, knowing I couldn't speak Chinese and that my kids were still in North Korea. But the increased surveillance upon my return made life too hard. I would go off to work in the markets each day, but my mother had to suffer constant interference from the police and political security agents visiting our home. My mother also used to live in the countryside, but I took her into our home in 2012 after the authorities destroyed her home to build a power plant. Our home turned out no better though, as she could not live with the continuous harassment. She would cry and plead to me that she could no longer stand to hear their orders to vacate. The house was becoming an even bigger problem to us all.


From 2013 until about a year later when we finally escaped, everywhere we went, we would hear the security agents threatening to evict us. We moved around three times during that year, but they always managed to find us and continue their harassment, as we were still not registered. My mother and I even moved out to the middle of nowhere to evade the authorities, but we weren't able to stay there either. We finally moved in with some family back in the city, but they still found us. 


I began to think after all this moving around and after going to China and coming back to North Korea, that even though I knew life there was hard, that I could no longer bear the stress from all of this. It felt like North Korea was deliberately trying to get rid of me. I lived my whole life on the border with China but had never before thought about leaving. All of this harassment finally changed my mind. I believed I had to escape to South Korea.


Even after giving bribes to the authorities, was there no way to receive proper housing registration? 


It wasn't impossible, but after 8 years of constant pursuit from the security agents, I lost all the necessary documents for registration. I would have had to pay a huge amount of money in bribes to get those documents back. I thought I would rather use that money to escape to the South instead of feeding the ruthless security apparatus. 


Do security agents or others receiving bribes examine a person's songbun (family background and political loyalty) before granting permission?


These days they do not look at your songbun. They only consider a person's influence or their wealth before granting permission to relocate. If you do not have either of these, then you are destined to stay living wherever you are for the rest of your life. If you are a farmer, then you will stay a farmer. Even though my father was from the city, he decided to bring my mother to the countryside to marry and live, so others in my family had no choice but to move there as well. Back then we had the famine of the late 1990s, and the government was mobilizing workers back to the deserted farms. They were drafting people from the cities, beginning with males, but my mother was also forced to go, along with some other family members. This was in 1996.


What do you think is the reason for the authorities creating such strict limits on relocating?


Its so they can maintain control of the people. They imprison us in the country through this registration system to prevent us from defecting. This business of constantly checking our location is clearly just to keep control over us.


And after all of this, have you found a new home since coming to South Korea?


Yes, I have. I first lived in Gimpo but am now living in Seoul. Here we have the freedom to move around as we please, as long as we can afford it. I can now choose to move wherever I wish. 


The North Korean government places limits on freedom of movement for all of its citizens based solely on a desire to maintain absolute control. The international community calls upon the regime to cease restricting the basic right of an individual to live where they wish. 

*Translated by Colin Zwirko
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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