A woman walking along a farm path with a large sack. During the three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the level of poverty suffered by North Koreans has worsened to an extreme. This photo was taken in July 2021 on the Chinese side of the border. (ASIAPRESS)

Amid an increase in people dying of malnutrition since April, there have also been frequent cases of people committing suicide due to difficult conditions, along with cases of entire families committing group suicide. The Kim Jong-un regime has taken efforts to ensure that word about these suicides and starvation deaths do not spread, intensifying crackdowns and punishments towards those who spread such information. Several ASIAPRESS reporting partners provided information about the current situation inside North Korea. (KANG Ji-won)

◆ People continue to commit suicide

“There’s been no stop to suicides and group suicides …”

Starting in June, the reporting partners ASIAPRESS talked to all agreed that the situation inside North Korea is dire:

“There’s been people who died of starvation and even one person who committed suicide by overdosing on opium in our inminban (neighborhood watch unit). That left three houses empty, and the authorities gave those houses to homeless people. (“A,” a reporting partner in Yanggang Province, late June)

“In early July, a man living alone in our neighborhood watch unit ate opium before committing suicide. The authorities said he died of malnutrition with his eyes open. There was no money to cremate his body, and he had no relatives, so he was buried without a funeral. (“B,” a reporting partner in Hoeryong, North Hamgyung Province, early July)

※ 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.

◆ Lots of people commit suicide with the help of opium

How do people commit suicide in North Korea?

“Most people overdose on medications to commit suicide. Lots of people take opium. That allows them to die without pain in their sleep,” the Yanggang Province reporting partner said.

According to “B,” most people avoid jumping into bodies of water or hanging themselves and instead “eat opium to die in their sleep or take rat poison. I’ve heard there’s a lot of suicides in other regions, too, but I don’t know for sure because it’s hard to travel around.”

Opium originates from the poppy seed and is easy to obtain in North Korea because it is commonly used in ordinary medicines.

◆ The regime clamps down on news about starvation deaths and suicides

Meanwhile, the Kim Jong-un regime is taking stringent efforts to ensure that word of starvation deaths and suicides do not spread. “A” told ASIAPRESS that:

“Bad news such as starvation deaths and suicides are all considered ‘groundless rumors’ whether or not they are true, and people are punished for spread what the authorities call ‘false rumors.’ People in close relationships might talk about these things, but everyone is careful about what they say in public. They are afraid of being sent to a forced labor camp or fined by the authorities for saying something by mistake.”

※ Forced labor brigade
A "forced labor brigade” is a "short-term forced labor camp" where those who are deemed to have disturbed the social order, disobeyed the authorities, or committed minor crimes are detained without judicial procedures and sentenced to forced labor for up to one year. These camps are in cities and counties throughout the country and are managed by the police.

◆ Criticism against cadres in suicide note

“A” told ASIAPRESS about a specific example of a group suicide discovered in Bochon County, Yanggang Province, in mid-June. The family left a suicide note, which allowed many people to hear about the incident.

“On June 14, a father and his son suffering from starvation in Bochon sold their house, boiled up rabbit intestines to eat, and then ate rabbit poison. The head of the neighborhood watch unit discovered the bodies and reported it to the police. The district office dealt with the case, but a suicide note was found.”

The suicide note read: “No matter how loyal and sincerely I work for the Workers’ Party, I can’t even feed my son a single meal as I watch him waste away. It’s too hard to die alone, so we go together.”

The suicide note also criticized party cadres, saying: “Cadres are living on cloud nine and have no idea how people below them are living.”

The head of the neighborhood watch unit who discovered the bodies told people in the area about the state of the house and the suicide note, which helped spread information about the incident. “A” told ASIAPRESS that news of the suicide note spread in Yanggang Province’s biggest city of Hyesan, leading to a rebuke by the authorities.

“At a neighborhood watch unit meeting, the officials warned that even just talking about anyone dying of starvation is a problem. The officials said that a police officer came to confirm the corpses and a hospital issued a document saying that the two died of disease, so saying that there was a suicide note or claiming that they died of starvation was a groundless rumor that helps the enemies, and that nobody should talk about the incident, even in their own homes.”

The neighborhood watch unit leader in question was sent to a forced labor camp.

“A” explained to ASIAPRESS that:

“People who commit suicide are very discontented, so many spew insults at cadres before they die. Recently, neighborhood watch unit leaders are supposed to prevent anyone from entering the houses where suicides have taken place and call in police officers and doctors first to confirm the corpses. The district offices manage everything, even the funerals. People who commit suicide with opium are treated as opium addicts. In fact, many commit suicide due to starvation, so people think it’s ridiculous that the government would lie.”

In North Korea, suicide is considered an anti-state and anti-party act.

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