(FILE PHOTO) A soldier getting on a train with a cigarette in his hand. Taken by ASIAPRESS at Hyesan Station, Yanggang Province, in October 2013.

People in North Korea’s provincial cities are increasingly fearful due to a rash of armed robberies that have taken place amid continuing poverty among the urban dwellers. The increase in cases of blackmail and robberies by military soldiers has led to police to order its officers to “fire on and suppress (criminals) in cases where the offense is heinous.” A reporting partner in North Hamgyung Province gave the following report in late June. (KANG Ji-won)

◆ Robbers use knives to threaten victims and take away their bicycles, phones and even their clothes

Currently, in areas bordering China, including North Hamgyung and Yanggang provinces, it is illegal to go outside after 9 PM. The curfew was originally implemented to prevent people from using the cover of night to cross the border into China, defect across the border, or engage in smuggling; recently, however, the ban is being used to prevent robberies.

A reporting partner called “A” in Hoeryong told ASIAPRESS that “anyone who is caught outside after 9:30 PM (the authorities give people 30 minutes after 9 PM to get home) is detained. Soldiers are also subject to being detained for curfew violations. People are scared to go outside once it’s dark because robbers will stick knives at your throat or waist and take away what you’re carrying, including your phone and even your clothes.”

“A” also told ASIAPRESS about a recent robbery that occurred in broad daylight near where he lives:

“A man and woman were returning to the downtown area on their bike from the outskirts of town one afternoon in late June when they were robbed. The man’s head was smashed with a rock as he tried to fight back and he fainted, and the robber took the bike and all their personal items.

These days, robberies are conducted in teams. There are many robberies where criminals have a lookout to ensure no one’s coming while they attack their victims, even stealing their bikes. People are so scared that they’ll go in groups of three to five people when travelling between rural and downtown areas.”

(FILE PHOTO) Young soldiers taking baths and doing their washing along the edges of the Yalu River. Some of the soldiers are so thin you can see their ribs. The photograph shows a part of Sakju County, North Pyongan Province, and was taken by ISHIMARU Jiro on the Chinese side of border in July 2017. Soldiers are currently banned from approaching the river, so it’s impossible to see anything like this now.

◆ Police ordered to fire on and suppress those who commit heinous crimes

The authorities, however, are not just sitting on their hands in the face of this increase in heinous crime. “A” told ASIAPRESS that in late June, people attending an inminban (neighborhood watch unit) meeting were told to actively cooperate with the police and official efforts to crack down on crime.

All districts have checkpoints manned by inminban. The authorities ordered that these checkpoints must thoroughly confirm the identities of everyone entering the districts in order to catch those perpetrating robberies or other anti-social behavior, and to report people who are involved in group activities.

The police are also increasing both the size and number of day and night patrols, which is “due to an order to fire on and suppress criminals who conduct heinous crimes,” the reporting partner told ASIAPRESS.

◆ Violent soldiers

A major problem is that robberies are frequently committed by military soldiers.

“If criminals are soldiers, the police can’t go to military bases to conduct face-to-face interviews, even if the criminals’ faces are revealed. That’s why soldiers are increasingly causing issues and stealing from ordinary people during the daylight when there’s a lot of people around.

I once refused to give a passing soldier a cigarette he demanded and he took that as an offense and started an argument, but I was so scared I eventually just handed over all my cigarettes. If I hadn’t, he would’ve probably taken away from bicycle and everything else I had on me. The military bases say they are restricting soldiers’ leave, but robberies committed by soldiers continue to happen.”

Behind the increase in heinous crime such as robberies, there has been a rise in people suffering from poverty due to North Korea’s poor economic situation. There are even cases of people dying of starvation among the vulnerable classes in provincial cities. The frequent cases of robberies by soldiers may be due to poor supplies of daily necessities like food at military bases.

Another ASIAPRESS reporting partner said that “these days, people are focused on surviving without starving at any cost, even if that means stealing.”

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