(FILE PHOTO)A young homeless boy wandering the streets with a sack. Taken by ASIAPRESS in Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province, in September 2013.

In urban areas in the northern part of North Korea, there have been continuing reports of entire families disappearing or, because of dire economic circumstances, being forced to head to rural areas to survive. Many North Koreans have lost their source of income, which has led an increasing number of people to abandon life in the cities. ASIAPRESS talked to several reporting partners in the northern region of the country to find out more. (KANG Ji-won)

◆ An increasing number of “missing people”

A reporting partner in Musan County, North Hamgyung Province, told ASIAPRESS the following in mid-September:

“There’s been a lot of people who have just disappeared. The heads of the neighborhood watch units go around almost everyday to check on how people are faring, but they don’t know where anybody has gone. Even our neighborhood watch unit saw the disappearance of a family of three the other day. Nobody knows whether they’ve gone to China, or left for rural areas or the mountains in search of food…”

※ Neighborhood watch units are North Korea’s lowest administrative units and are typically made up of 20-30 households. The units take orders from local district offices and report on what people are doing and thinking to the authorities.

The circumstances are the same in Hyesan, Yanggang Province’s administrative center. A reporting partner in the city told ASIAPRESS that, “There’s an increasing number of people who have disappeared or are wandering around rural areas.”

◆ Some city dwellers flee to the countryside to beg

The cause of all this is poverty. Following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, the Kim Jong-un regime shut down the country’s borders and stopped nearly all trade with China. Restrictions were intensified on movement, trade and business activities, leaving many urban North Koreans with vastly reduced incomes. The country’s urban poor have been forced to use all their savings and even sell off their household items; the only thing left for them to do has been to leave their urban dwellings.

ASIAPRESS’s reporting partner in Hyesan explained:

“There’s many families who have gone to remote mountainous areas to quietly grow food on plots of land. Sometimes, they come down to the foot of the mountains to steal crops from people cultivating food on private plots. Some workers have even applied for sick leave from their workplaces and left their places of residence to wander around agricultural areas begging for food. Some have even been caught stealing food from farms.”

North Korean authorities, meanwhile, have classified people who have left their places of residence without permission as “vagabonds.” Following the start of the pandemic, they have strongly cracked down on them as people who are disturbing the social order. The authorities, however, are having trouble because these “vagabonds” have only been increasing. A reporting partner in the country told ASIAPRESS:

“The police head into the mountains in search of ‘vagabonds.’ Arresting them hasn’t been effective, however; they just wander around again when they’re released from detention and back to their homes. Moreover, the authorities have to provide food to people detained or punished with force labor. Recently, there have been people leaving their homes to wander around begging because they believe it’s OK to get picked up by the police. They know they’ll be provided with one or two meals a day of salted water and rice with powdered corn.”

◆ Some families turn to suicide

The reporting partners have heard from the authorities that there have been almost no defections anymore. The border rivers are so closely guarded that people are unable to even approach their banks.

Meanwhile, the reporting partners said that there have been frequent suicides by people who have fallen into despair due to their poor financial situations. “There were several families near where I live that committed suicide by eating rat poison,” one of the reporting partners said.

The Hyesan reporting partner told ASIAPRESS that, “A single mother in Wuiyon District committed suicide with her nine-year-old son back in June. When the neighborhood watch unit officials went into the house, there were no household items left. The woman had even torn up the wooden floors to use as firewood.”

※ ASIAPRESS communicates with its reporting partners through Chinese cell phones smuggled into North Korea.

Map of North Korea ( ASIAPRESS)