North Korea has reportedly sentenced the wife of an ethnic Chinese resident to seven years hard labor for illegal cellphone use, suggesting the leniency the community has enjoyed as foreign residents could be coming to an end.
RFA reports that the ethnic Chinese, known as Hwagyo, or residents in Korean, mostly settled on the Korean Peninsula before the Communists took control of China.
They are not citizens and lack certain rights such as holding public office or membership of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party.
Despite this, they have had some privileges.
The Hwagyo have been subjected to less scrutiny, unlike North Koreans who must endure indoctrination sessions, consume state-approved media and are closely monitored.
They can also travel abroad and generally get away with minor rule breaches.
Leniency was also extended to North Korean-citizen family members, but sources say the cellphone case suggests things are changing.
“In mid-October, the wife of a Hwagyowas sentenced [to hard labor] for illegal phone calls in Onsong County,” a source from North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.
The sentence was harsher than usual, the source noted.
“Usually the immediate family members of Hwagyo are only fined when caught using illegal cellphones, but this time the judicial authorities are giving [the whole community] a strong warning [through this harsh sentence],” the source said.
The source said the woman was a North Korean in her late 30s, who is married to a member of the ethnic Chinese community.
“She was working as a remittance broker, making calls freely and using her husband’s Hwagyo status to justify it,” the source told RFA.
People usually hide their illegal phones during crackdowns, but she was free to operate as a remittance broker for families of defectors, the source said.
She would also flaunt her friendship with officials dealing with Hwagyoaffairs, the source added.
Despite previous indiscretions, the woman had never been seriously punished for them.
“Although [she] was caught several times by wiretapping before, she was able to bribe [the authorities] with large sums of Chinese money to get out of trouble,” the source said.
It was thought her family had connections in the Security Department.
“It was known that a powerful person [in the Security Department] had her back, so people expected that she would merely be fined again,” a second source told RFA.
“But after a three-month joint investigation … [she] got seven years of hard labor.”
The second source said the harsh punishment was just the latest in what appears to be a clampdown on the Hwagyo community.
Its more difficult for them to get visas to visit China and travel certificates for border trips. “It’s like they’re putting the brakes on their departure,” the second source said.
“Many Hwagyohave been working in China in various industries or making money by trading goods, and [authorities are now] blocking their livelihoods,” the second source added.
The second source said the good ties North Korea enjoys with China makes these moves the more confusing.