(FILE PHOTO) An elderly woman selling food on the street, the hardships of life reflected in his bleary eyes. Taken in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, June 2013 by Mindeullae (ASIAPRESS)

In late March, a group of elderly people stormed into a government office in Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, demanding rice. The incident led to the mobilization of riot police, and now local authorities are scrambling to deal with aftereffects of the sudden unrest. An ASIAPRESS reporting partner in the region provided details on the situation. (JEON Sung-jun / KANG Ji-won)

◆ Economic difficulties lead an elderly woman to demand rice from government officials

According to a reporting partner in Hyesan, the incident occurred on March 29. An ASIAPRESS investigation found that it started with the bold action of an elderly woman who was struggling to make ends meet.

"(The elderly lady) went to the district office and said, 'The Supreme Leader (Kim Jong-un) won't let people starve to death, but the cadres in the middle are eating everything and not giving us food. So give me food now because I have nothing to eat,'" the reporting partner said.

Since the old lady's attitude was so confident and she was referring to the Supreme Leader, the government officials gave her some rice and sent her on her way. News of what she had done quickly spread around the neighborhood, which then led the situation to spiral out of control.

A view of Hyesan, taken from the Chinese side. The center of Hyesan city can be seen across the Yalu River. Taken in July 2014 (ASIAPRESS)

◆ Police called to deal with the unrest, with children ordered to take away their elderly parents

"The word got out, and the elderly started going to the district office, the municipal party, the people's committee, and the state-run food store, shouting and screaming for food. It got so bad that the authorities had to call the children to come and take their parents away."

When a steady stream of elderly people came to the government office, later joined by people who had run out of food, the local police were dispatched to stop them, the reporting partner said.

◆ The authorities call the originator of the rumors an “anti-socialist element”

(FILE PHOTO) Women talking in a residential area. Word of mouth is an important way of distributing information among North Koreans. Photo taken in Hyesan in August 2013 by ASIAPRESS

After the dust settled, the authorities seem to be taking steps to ensure that the incident doesn't happen again, blaming the elderly woman who started the rumor as a "senile old woman" who spreads rumors. Calling the incident "a case of spreading rumors and disrupting society," the authorities have been vigilant and cracking down on rumor-mongering among local residents.

"Since April, we have been informed that there will be a crackdown on rumors and strict punishment against old people who talk about various incidents or criticize policies."

In addition, the authorities are creating an atmosphere of fear by claiming that they are hunting down those who spread rumors about the incident, the reporting partner explained.

"The police branded the person who first spread the rumor as an anti-socialist agent and went around investigating all the people who passed by that day to see who spread the rumor. Once they realized they couldn't confirm who did it, they informed us that rumors, criticizing cadres, and denouncing party policies would be punished as anti-socialist acts."

While this could be dismissed as an isolated incident, it should be seen as a contributing factor to the recent increase in unrest as people's lives have become more difficult.

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

A map of North Korea (ASIAPRESS)