North Koreans mobilized to collect gravel to build a greenhouse on a square near apartments. Photograph taken in March 2013 in Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province, by ASIAPRESS.


Starting this year, North Korean authorities have increased the roles and duties of inminban (people’s units). As the authority held by inminban leaders has risen, people are afraid, calling the leaders “scarier than the police.” The reason for this change is the Kim Jong-un regime’s strengthening of its control over the people under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID-19. (Kang Ji-Won)

Inminban are the lowest administrative units in North Korea. They typically manage 20-30 households in a particular area. Inminban leaders relay orders from local district offices to residents and are also in charge of keeping a close eye on the (ideological) tendencies shown by ordinary people. Local district offices have long appointed housewives with “irreproachable conduct”as inminban leaders.

Inminban leaders are tasked with understanding what is going on in each household and managing issues as they come up. Specifically, this means the leaders confirm where members of households are living, what their jobs are, how much they earn, and whether they allow people from other places to sleep in their homes. The next most important task inminban leaders have is to relay the policies of the government and hand down instructions where necessary.

Inminban leaders are also involved in mobilizing people for labor projects handed down by the district offices and ordering households to deliver various goods – called “non-tax burdens” in North Korea – to provide food to the military and materials for construction projects. In short, inminban leaders live among the people to do the bidding of the Kim Jong-un regime.

Women mobilized to move rocks to cleanup a river. Photograph taken in June 2013 in the northern part of the country by ASIAPRESS.

◆ Inminban leaders receive special rations for managing the people

Inminban leaders themselves also need to make a living, which means many are involved in commercial and agricultural activities. North Korean authorities continue to expand the household management role played by the inminban leaders on a yearly basis, which has led to increasing benefits for these officials. An ASIAPRESS reporting partner living in the northern part of the country recently reported:

“The economy is in dire straits due to COVID-19, so (the government) has begun providing food rations to the inminban leaders to ensure their livelihood. In the area I live, (inminban leaders) receive five days’ worth of rations per month. The people’s committee (the local government) has become involved in the selection of inminban leaders, and where possible former soldiers who are also party members are selected for the positions. The new inminban leader where I live is in her 40s and is a party member with military experience.”

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kim Jong-un regime has placed a priority on preventing the virus from entering the country and establishing a system of disease-prevention controls throughout the society. Moreover, the regime has taken efforts to prevent the collapse of social order due to the worsening economic situation by exerting controls over people’s behavior. The regime has strengthened the authority held by inminban leaders, who live among the people and manage their daily lives in a direct way.

◆ Scarier than the police...Everyone has to stay on the good side of their local inminban leader

From the perspective of ordinary North Koreans, inminban leaders are an extremely annoying presence. The ASIAPRESS reporting partner explained:

“Inminban leaders come every morning to knock on people’s doors to tell them to do various things such as cleaning up the streets, check on how much human waste has been collected for manure quotas, or to demand payment to support construction projects. The leaders also ask personal questions, such as how a household is faring and whether any guests have visited. It’s suffocating.”

However, just because inminban leaders are annoying does not mean that people can look down on them or treat them poorly. The leaders know about the lives and behavior of people in their charge and have the authority to hand out “confirmation stamps.” These stamps are given out to confirm whether a person has completed the labor they were mobilized for or whether they delivered goods demanded by the state. Without these stamps, people have trouble acquiring rations, getting their kids into school, and can even impact whether someone can join the military.

“The inminban leaders work with the local police and state security office to monitor people and report on what everyone is doing. People now believe that inminban leaders are scarier than police officers. The leaders know just about everything about the people they monitor, so everyone must ensure they don’t get on their bad side.”

The increase in authority held by the inminban leaders has led to a rise in their incomes.

“Recently, a person who came to do business in the area I live gave 50 RMB (around 9,600 KRW) to an (inminban leader) so they wouldn’t have to register where they were sleeping nor report to the police they had been given a fever check.”

Inminban leaders are now becoming the core of the Kim Jong-un regime’s efforts to exert control over its population.

※ ASIAPRESS smuggles Chinese cellphones into North Korea to maintain communication with its reporting partners.