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Ministry of Public Security
Social Safety Ministry

The Ministry of Public Security [also termed the Social Safety Ministry] and the State Security Department are responsible for internal security. Although both are government organs, they are tightly controlled by the party apparatus through the Justice and Security Commission and the penetration of their structures by the party apparatus at all levels. The formal public security structure is augmented by a pervasive system of informers throughout the society. Surveillance of citizens, both physical and electronic, also is routine. In 1973 political security responsibilities were transferred from the Ministry of Public Security to the State Security Department, an autonomous agency reporting directly to the President.

The Ministry of People’s Security (also known as the Ministry of Public Security) employs roughly 200,000 personnel. Its responsibilities include internal security, social control (such as songbun records and residency restrictions), and basic police functions, including riot suppression.

The Ministry of People’s Security is involved in gross violations of human rights. The correctional bureau within the ministry previously operated one of the country’s political prison camps (Camp 18) and continues to operate the majority of the country’s labor camps (kyohwaso) and other detention/interrogation facilities. Torture and other forms of abuse are reportedly employed regularly as tools of control in these camps.

Defectors have also reported the ministry regularly uses torture and other forms of abuse to extract confessions, including techniques involving sexual violence, hanging individuals from the ceiling for extended periods of time, prolonged periods of exposure, and severe beatings. According to the COI report, almost all of the more than 100 witnesses repatriated from China reported having been “beaten or subjected to worse forms of torture during interrogations” in detention centers run by the ministries of state security and people’s security. The COI also reports that inhumane detention conditions also exerted pressure on individuals to quickly confess to secure their survival.

The ministry also enforces the government’s censorship policies. According to the COI report, the Communication Maintenance Bureau is responsible for removing the radio components of cassette players (which are legal in the DPRK) to prevent users from listening to foreign broadcasts.

The Ministry of Public Security, responsible for internal security, social control, and basic police functions, is one of the most powerful organizations in North Korea. It controlled an estimated 144,000 public security personnel in the early 1990s, and by the end of the decade the total staff was estimated to number some 180,000 persons. It maintains law and order; investigates common criminal cases; manages the prison system and traffic control; monitors citizens' political attitudes; conducts background investigations, census, and civil registrations; controls individual travel; manages the government's classified documents; protects government and party officials; and patrols government buildings and some government and party construction activities.

The ministry has vice ministers for personnel, political affairs, legal counselling, security, surveillance, internal affairs, rear services, and engineering. There are approximately twenty-seven bureaus, but the functional responsibilities of only some of the bureaus are known. The Security Bureau is responsible for ordinary law enforcement and most police functions. The Investigation Bureau handles investigations of criminal and economic crimes. The Protection Bureau is responsible for fire protection, traffic control, public health, and customs. The Registration Bureau issues citizen identification cards and maintains public records on births, deaths, marriages, residence registration, and passports.

Below the ministry level, there are public security bureaus for each province and directly administered city. These bureaus are headed by either a senior colonel or a lieutenant colonel of police, depending on the size of the population. Public security departments at each city or county and smaller substations through the country are staffed by about 100 personnel. They are organized roughly parallel to the ministry itself and have several divisions responsible for carrying out various functions.

The Public Security Bureau is North Korea's equivalent of a police force, and its duties are to maintain public security and investigate crime, issue citizen registration cards to monitor movement of the populace, and provide security for various facilities.

Every thirty to forty North Korean households are organized into a managed by a Unit Supervisor, Chief of Heads of Households, and Sanitation Chief. The heads handle all day-to-day administration and work in cooperation with the Public Security Bureau to monitor members of the unit. Individual party committees have been installed at every level of the military and government, and all major economic and social organizations. This binds all the organizations to the party and makes for a more effective control mechanism.

The Border Guards are the paramilitary force of the Ministry of Public Security. They are primarily concerned with monitoring the border and with internal security. The latter activities include physical protection of government buildings and facilities. During a conflict, they would probably be used in border and rear area security missions.

By 2012 North Korea began more frequently changing the guards posted along its border with China in order to prevent corruption, making it harder for would-be defectors to escape. The guards had been changed more frequently since the country’s leader Kim Jong Un took power after his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011. Border guards’ location assignments used to be changed once per year, but in 2013 the guards near the border town of Musan in North Hamgyong province have already been changed twice in six months. The rapid rotation of border guard garrisons made it harder for brokers to work with border guards to arrange defectors’ escapes, restricting the number of North Koreans attempting to flee the country. Brokers who help North Korean defectors can’t establish cozy relationships with border guards because of the short terms of their assignments.

The assignment changes can be made suddenly from the top, without any way for the information to leak out ahead of time. When it is approved by the General Bureau of Border Security, a brigade directly orders each company [without giving any notice to division and battalion], and then, in 24 hours, the companies are rotated. To prevent North Koreans from defecting from the country, brigades have systems in place to encourage border guards to report defectors, including incentives such as recommendations for entering college or joining the Korean Workers’ Party.

In January 2013, Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for relations with the North, reported that in 2012 there had been a significant decrease in the number of North Koreans arriving in South Korea, with just over 1,500 arriving that year compared to more than 2,700 in 2011. It was the first time the figure had fallen below 2,000 since 2006.

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