North Korea's Kim Jong Un wages defector crackdown
REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– In North Korea, a new Kim may be in command but the same old human rights violations are still in play, including a renewed lethal crackdown on defectors, according to South Korean media reports.
Weeks after 20-something Kim Jong Un assumed power following his father Kim Jong Il’s sudden death by heart attack last month, border guards have begun shooting down would-be defectors who try to flee the impoverished nation, the reports said.
Three people who tried to flee the repressive regime were reportedly killed in recent days as they tried to cross the Yalu River along the Chinese border, part of a policy of tightened border controls that Pyongyang is enforcing after Kim Jong Il's Dec. 17 death.
Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has pledged to hunt down and imprison, or even kill, three generations of family left behind by escapees, successful or not, according to Seoul's Joongang Daily newspaper.
North Korea watchers say the younger Kim may fear that a rise in defections could destabilize his fledgling hold on power as officials across Pyongyang's security apparatus jockey to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime's new strongman.
"There was nothing like the eradication of three generations in the Kim Jong Il era, but now it's happening under Kim Jong Un," an unnamed official told the newspaper.
The crackdown is seen as part of Kim Jong Un's attempt to consolidate his power and show backbone to the high-ranking generals of the nation's 1.2-million-troops-strong military who once revered his father –- officers old enough to be the younger Kim's grandfather.
"Obviously it is getting much harder to defect," Do Hee-yoon, a member of the Citizens' Coalition for the Human Rights of Abductees, told the Korea Times newspaper.
The JoongAng Daily said Kim Jong Un ordered "immediate executions when people are caught trying to cross the borders." There were also reports that Kim gave the order to a special security squad of the Korean People’s Army under his direct control, authorizing them to shoot defectors on the spot.
The reported killings are the first fatalities since Kim Jong Un, now hailed as North Korea's "Supreme Leader," ordered the borders closed after his father's death.
There were other signs apparently designed to persuade North Koreans to take their new leader seriously despite his youth.
Pyongyang has banned the use of foreign currency in markets, even the Chinese yuan, the monetary unit of North Korea’s biggest supporter, according to the Daily NK, a website monitoring the North. Pyongyang has also jammed cellphone calls across the porous China border, the website said.
The Daily NK also reported that many North Koreans who stood along the parade route in Pyongyang on the cold, snowy day of Kim Jong Il's funeral last week were ordered not to wear hats, gloves or scarves despite temperatures that dipped below 25 degrees.
The order came after Kim Jong Un decided to escort his father's hearse barehanded, the website said, quoting sources.
Residents were warned, a source said, that "behind every line there will be people watching," the website said.
The number of defectors has risen in recent years as North Korea began suffering massive food shortages and residents became exposed to information from abroad. More than 22,000 North Korean escapees have settled in the South.
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: North Koreans vow loyalty to their new leader, Kim Jong Un, at a rally in Pyongyang. Credit: EPA / Korea Central News Agency