Few residents on the Yalu Riverside, only soldiers in masks are conspicuous. Photograph of Sinuiju City from the Chinese side in July 2021 (ASIAPRESS)


There has been an extreme decrease in information coming from within North Korea. Since the Kim Jong-un regime closed the Chinese border last January to prevent the influx of the coronavirus, there has been an almost complete absence of human traffic. No tourists, foreign media, or businesspeople have been allowed to enter the country for a year and a half, and North Koreans have hardly been allowed to leave.

Even the Choson Sinbo, the official newspaper of the Korean Confederation in Japan, and Russian News Agency TASS of the friendly country of Russia has been without a representative. The Chinese Xinhua News Agency replied that they could not confirm the withdrawal of their reporters in Pyongyang.

 International mail has also come to a complete halt due to the refusal to accept mail from China. All the international organization employees stationed in Pyongyang have left the country, and the number of officers has dropped to zero. The number of diplomats has also been greatly reduced. Since I started covering North Korea in 1993, I have never experienced such a strict and prolonged "national isolation".

As live information from inside North Korea has dried up, ASIAPRESS has managed to keep in touch with our reporting partners living in various parts of North Korea using Chinese cell phones that we brought in. However, we are struggling to cover the area because of the intense crackdown on radio wave detection. In addition, we are receiving from inside the bizarre "national isolation" is the plight of the residents.

Excessive control and pharmaceuticals have disappeared.

As of the beginning of July 2021, there is no indication that the coronavirus infection has spread within North Korea. It can be said that this is the result of the success of the powerful measures that strongly paralleled border blockades and domestic controls. Although it is difficult to believe the North Korean authorities claim that there have been no cases of infection, there has been some easing of controls recently, such as the resumption of face-to-face classes at schools and the mobilization of urban residents to help farmers.

Although there has been no COVID-19 outbreak, there is widespread unrest in the country. A side effect of the strong quarantine measures has been a severe economic deterioration, and the situation has already reached the humanitarian crisis level. "I'm more afraid of hunger than of Coronavirus." This is what the residents feared a year ago, and it has come true. Examples of this will be discussed later.

After the news of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, last January, the North Korean authorities quickly banned foreigners from entering the country. In addition, all trade ports on the border rivers of Yalu River and the Tumen River were blocked, and imports and exports were strongly restricted. And that's not all. The government also imposed excessive and violent restrictions on movement within the country, quarantined anyone with a cold-like symptom such as a cough, and locked down residential areas for two weeks. The economy quickly cooled off.

Firstly, Chinese products skyrocketed due to the suspension of imports. The price of cooking oil, seasonings, etc., increased several dozen times. Due to the disruption of medicine imports from China, many elderly people are dying from tuberculosis, injuries, food poisoning, colds, and other diseases that cannot be treated.

The ban on the movement of people and goods to other provinces has led to a sharp decline in jobs in transportation and cargo handling. Many factories and mines have reduced or stopped operations because they are no longer receiving machine parts, raw materials and supplies from China.

The stagnation of market activities led to a sharp decrease in ordinary people's cash income. It also reduced the income of the police, the government, and the leaders of the Workers' Party of Korea, who relied on bribes. The circulation of both money and goods was stagnant, and the impoverishment deepened day by day. As in Japan, it was the vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, single mothers, and families with sick members, who were the first to fall into distress.

Increasing number of beggars and prostituted women

What do people do when they have difficulties in living? Our reporting partners explained as follows:

"When we run out of cash, we borrow rice or corn from our neighbours or acquaintances. If that becomes too difficult, we pawn or sell our household goods. It is a common sight to see a debt collector barging in and taking all the household goods that have been pledged as collateral down to the pots and pans. The last resort is to turn to crime or sell the house."

In North Korea, houses are state-owned and cannot be bought and sold without permission. Still, since the 1990s, transactions have been conducted by buying and selling certificates of residence registration, called "entry certificates," and a housing market has been established.

Those who have sold their houses have no choice but to pay money to secure a place to sleep in someone else's warehouse or go to the streets. Since early summer last year, we have received reports of an increase in the number of "kochebi" (vagrants) from all over the country. The sight of abandoned children and older people begging in the marketplace has become commonplace, reminiscent of the great famine of the late 1990s.

What was heart breaking was the report that women's prostitution was on the rise in every city.

"There are married women who commute from rural areas to urban areas for prostitution. In the cities, there are also small prostitution organizations that send women to their clients by communicating with them on cell phones. Most of them are between 20 and 30 years old, and many poor girls are still as young as children. Because of the recent crackdown, they usually ride their bicycles through introducers to the places they are called to. Most of them are cheating partners of executives and rich people. They get 20 Chinese yuan per visit, or 30 to 50 yuan if you are lucky. Some men even give them 300 yuan a month to live nearby. It's hard to sell your body in North Korea. I can't imagine how hard life must have been for them to turn to prostitution." (1 yuan is about 0.15 USD)    Continue 2>>



Editor’s notes on North Korean reporters
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