The shadowy groups trying to stop North Koreans from listening to K-pop

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SEOUL – Lee Suk-jeong made a lot of money as a smuggler across the border between North Korea and China, bringing in items coveted on the North Korean black markets: gold, cigarettes and popular South Korean television shows, movies and music.

That made her a frequent target of surveillance, and her home would be searched without warning. Once she was held in a detention center for more than a year, said 49-year-old Lee, who defected south in 2019.

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Those who pursued Lee worked for a shadowy surveillance operation in North Korea called the Non-Socialist Groups, which uses a network of informers to crack down on a wide range of behavior that Kim Jong has labeled “non-socialist” or against the principles of the nation. A regimen.

The enforcers rely on fear, bribery and extortion to help Kim maintain his grip on society, and can be quickly mobilized to crack down on activities deemed problematic, according to a report from the Seoul-based Database Center. for North Korean Human Rights which was first provided exclusively to the Washington Post.

The violations pursued by the groups include owning or consuming South Korean media; sing, dance, or speak in a way that is not considered North Korean; attempted apostasy; or criticism of the regime. Those found in violation could be sent to labor camps or, in extreme cases, publicly executed, researchers have found.

The report, which will be released publicly on Thursday, offers a rare in-depth look at the inner workings of this network, highlighting pervasive human rights violations ranging from aggressive inspection to physical and psychological abuse. The report is based on interviews with 32 former enforcers and victims, many of whom defected from North Korea between 2018 and 2020, just before it closed its borders due to the pandemic.

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“This group was in the shadows. It has not been officially published. . . . We had to investigate the group’s presence in the daily lives of North Korean residents through oral testimony,” said Su Bobae, a researcher at the human rights group. “Through testimonials, we have established how the non-socialist groups play the role of inspectors within the larger surveillance society.”

North Korea began to tighten its surveillance activities after the deadly famine of the 1990s, which killed an estimated 3 million people. Families survived by illegally importing goods from neighboring China, paving the way for the black markets, or “jangmadang,” that are now central to North Korea’s economy.

This also led to an influx of information into the country, potentially endangering the survival of the totalitarian regime. South Korean dramas and movies showed that the South was a thriving capitalist country, rather than an impoverished country full of beggars and criminals as portrayed in North Korean propaganda, Lee told The Washington Post.

“Our jaws would drop wide open and we’d starve, cooped up in our homes, just binge-watching,” she said. “We saw reality and we went crazy. We were preoccupied.”

The non-socialist groups were active in the late 1990s and eventually spread across all regions, sectors and local communities to keep citizens in check, the report said. The enforcers serve about six months to two years to prevent them from developing deep connections with the public, which could make them more sympathetic to them, researchers found.

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Kim, the third-generation leader of North Korea, came to power in December 2011, more than a decade after black market activity began to flourish. Under his rule, researchers found the groups redoubled their efforts to curb the proliferation of South Korean media, which Kim has called a “vicious cancer” that undermines North Korean society.

“Kim Jong-un’s regime tries to prevent outside information from influencing people’s ideology. The ideology is seen as a crucial element in maintaining the regime,” Su said.

Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim has had to deal with his country’s millennials who grew up with access to smuggled goods and entertainment – the so-called “Jangmadang Generation” – which in many cases inspires them to flee the country.

Since the 2010s, a large number of violations identified by the non-socialist groups have involved the consumption of such South Korean media by North Korean millennials, the report found. Authorities are also targeting their parents, blaming them for not disciplining their children, according to witness statements.

The enforcers often have a quota to fill and work to catch violators in the act, said Kim Eun-duk, the former North Korean prosecutor who oversaw their work.

The group members typically accept a bribe — and sometimes extort people for more money — in exchange for letting them go, he said. Those who do not have enough for a bribe would be referred for punishment. Investigators found that the sentence depended on how much control the regime needs over its people at any given time, rather than the seriousness of the crime.

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“Women were searched, tortured and beaten. There [in North Korea] we don’t know what human rights are. We didn’t have that concept. I only heard of that concept in South Korea,” Kim, the former prosecutor who escaped in 2019, told The Post.

Lee, the defector, said the non-socialist groups would usually target large-scale smugglers like themselves, who can afford to pay large sums to be released.

“They say if you join the group for one stint it’s better than going to Russia [to make money],” she said.

Non-socialist — and the more serious, regime-challenging anti-socialist — activity is pervasive in North Korean society, said refugees, who estimate that the vast majority of people engage in behavior that the regime does not approve of. Most people interviewed by investigators said such behavior is necessary to make a living in North Korea, bartering and selling smuggled goods to supplement meager wages. Others said they were curious about new and unknown things to learn from illegal media, wanted to be entertained and longed for freedom.

All 32 escapees told investigators they would continue their non-socialist activities to make a living, even after inspections or a crackdown.

“Anyone who breathes society is doing it,” said an anonymous escapee quoted in the report. “First, to earn a living, second, to eat better than others, and third, to solve problems at work and be successful. Because that requires money.”

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