This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A North Korean initiative to issue a new type of national ID card every citizen has been restarted this month in rural areas of the country, raising fears that the campaign is really a way for authorities to discover people who have fled the country.
According to sources, authorities began the first phase of the project in Pyongyang sometime last year, with IDs issued in January 2019 to residents in cities and towns, but not to rural residents. The project was suspended due to financial difficulties before rural citizens could get their new ID cards.
“In the second round of this new ID campaign, residents in rural and mountainous regions will get their IDs,” a source from North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service Sunday.
The source said all residents are expected to have their new IDs by the end of the month.
“Last week, the village police station set a date and time and ordered the farmers to assemble to receive their new IDs,” said the source.
“But the farmers were too busy with the harvest, and don’t really care about the new ID cards, so more than half of them didn’t show up,” the source said.
“The police angrily told the people who failed to assemble to pick up their IDs at the county police station,” added the source.
While one group of residents griped that they had to get new IDs, another group of residents griped that they couldn’t get them at the same time as everyone else.
Another source, from North Pyongan province, told RFA that during the first phase of the project in January, rural citizens were unhappy that they were not issued the new ID cards at the same time as the country’s city dwellers.
“As the government failed to issue new IDs to everyone at the same time, and only residents in the large cities got theirs, the residents complained that the project was discriminatory to those in rural areas,” said the second source.
Even though citizens need their IDs when dealing with any kind of government entity, the second source said that older IDs were accepted without prejudice prior to the second phase of the project.
“In the Supreme People’s Assembly’s parliamentary elections, which were held in March, the people in the mountainous areas went out to vote with their old ID cards. Even the judicial authorities, who issue travel certificates or check the identities of long distance travelers, did not make any issues for those with old IDs because they understood that there were differences between regions,” said the second source.
Because the issuance of new IDs seems unnecessary, the second source said that some people suspect that the government issued new IDs with an ulterior motive – tracking people who escape North Korea into China. China is often the first step in a trip to settle in South Korea, the North’s prosperous, democratic rival.
“With the new IDs, the judicial authorities can more accurately count the number of people living in each region. Any residents who fail to get a new ID are then counted as defectors,” the second source said.
The second source said that new IDs will be issued every eight years, and the people find this to be excessive.
“The people are criticizing the authorities, saying that they came up with these new IDs just to find defectors. They say the government is wasting foreign currency to import the materials to make the more modern ID cards.”
While there are no official figures on the number of North Koreans that have escaped from the country, a recent report by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) estimated that in 1998 the number peaked at up to 150,000 living in China alone.
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification more than 33,000 North Koreans have entered South Korea over the past several decades, including 546 as of June this year.
Daily NK reported in February that the new ID cards measure 8 x 5.5 centimeters (approximately 3.15 x 2.17 inches), are made of plastic, contain an electronic chip, and have pictures printed on them, a major update over the older cards which were made of laminated paper with pictures pasted on the front.
The report said information listed on the ID includes name, date of birth, gender, marital status, blood type, nationality, and date of issue.