North Korea

Killing of Kim Jong-un's uncle chills North Korean expats in China

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 1:40am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 February, 2014, 5:56pm

She was a North Korean success story.

For more than two decades, the woman, now 50, dabbled in businesses along the border between China and North Korea. She sold rice, traded foreign currency and opened a massage parlour in China. She travelled between the two countries with relative ease and was making sufficient money to live comfortably, so much so that she rebuffed invitations to join a sister who had defected to South Korea.

But the woman, who did not want her name used out of fear for her safety, has changed her thinking about the future since the December execution of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle by marriage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Jang, 67, was long viewed as a champion of free enterprise within the nominally communist state, and his purge has rattled many North Koreans.

If he could do this to his own uncle, what would he do to the rest of us?

"People are scared. If he could do this to his own uncle, what would he do to the rest of us?" said the woman in an interview in Yanji , a city near the North Korean border where she has been living in recent years.

The woman, trying hard not to look North Korean for fear of being deported, confided in a tremulous voice her plan to escape to South Korea.

The sentiment reverberates throughout the community of expatriate North Koreans here. Until recently, it was assumed that Kim, 31, would steer the country towards economic reform. In Pyongyang, there are new restaurants, a pizzeria and a coffee shop. The country in November announced 13 special economic zones designed to encourage free trade. There had been more tolerance for entrepreneurs selling at the jamadang, North Korea's open-air markets.

"We had been hopeful. We thought things were getting better," said the woman, who comes from Undok, a town in the far north that was part of a special economic zone.

Thousands of North Koreans live and work without legal standing across the border in northeastern China. About 1,500 North Koreans defected last year to South Korea, according to government figures from Seoul. Most initially crossed the China-North Korea border. The numbers tapered off recently, in part because the moribund North Korean economy looked as though it was coming to life. But the crossings are expected to pick up this year because of the reverberations from Jang's execution.

"It might be the largest wave of defections ever, not in numbers but in political significance," said Professor Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University. "I would expect to see officers, people handling foreign trade, private operators and their families."

South Korean news media have been replete with reports of high-ranking defectors, among them Jang's minions in business and government. But it is clear from interviews near the border that low-level businesspeople, who never came close to meeting Jang, are among those shaken.

Even with North Korea's abysmal human-rights reputation the purge was shocking for its ruthlessness. Once the second-most powerful man in the country, Jang was shown on state television being yanked by his armpits out of his seat at a conclave of the ruling Workers' Party. State media denounced him as "despicable human scum, worse than a dog" and reported that he had been swiftly executed.

A report in South Korea said the North Korean government had also executed Jang's extended family, including a nephew who had been ambassador to Malaysia and a brother-in-law who had been ambassador to Cuba. That report was unconfirmed, but would be in keeping with long-standing North Korean policy to punish relatives of those accused of political crimes.

Some of the North Koreans in Yanji said they feared that the North Korean government would adopt a harsher policy toward defectors and the family members left behind.

"Now it is not just a question of disappointment. There is terror," said the businesswoman.

Watch: UN report: Former North Korea detainees speak of ordeal