This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean residents are being forced to chip in with food aid for construction workers building a new hospital in Pyongyang, creating resentment among provincial residents who are not permitted to freely travel to the capital, sources in the country told RFA.
“Neighborhood watch units in each district of the province are holding meetings to discuss providing food to Pyongyang,” a resident of North Hamgyong province, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“Regular events scheduled in March and April were all canceled [due to the coronavirus], but the neighborhood watch unit meetings go on as scheduled to solicit food aid for the construction workers in Pyongyang,” the source said.
Every neighborhood watch unit held such meetings on April 22, and the source attended one of them. “The meeting emphasized participation in the food aid campaign to complete the Pyongyang General Hospital as one of the nation’s top priorities,” the source said.
“As far as I know, these meetings to help out with Pyongyang’s food situation have been held in every neighborhood watch unit nationwide,” the source said.
According to the source, many of the provincial residents, who are themselves struggling to make ends meet due to COVID-19, resent that they are being asked to give to Pyongyang, a city where only the wealthy or well connected are granted permission to live.
“Some residents expressed their antipathy to the food aid request, asking why they must provide food for the Pyongyang General Hospital as it won’t even be usable by residents in the provinces,” the source said.
“In response, the neighborhood watch unit leaders argue that supporting the construction of the hospital is a top priority for the nation and has been ordered by the party amid a food situation that is bad all over the country,” said the source.
The watch leaders even went as far to say that the provincial people had it better than the privileged city-dwellers.
“They said that we have many ways to make money through our own businesses and side jobs, but Pyongyangers are tied to a very strict organizational lifestyle, so they have no means to get food or extra money,” the source said.
“In the end, the main point of the neighborhood watch meeting was that local residents should step up and feed Pyongyang because the situation in Pyongyang is difficult,” the source said.
Similar meetings were held in the North Hamgyong’s largest city Chongjin, according to another resident who also requested anonymity.
“[The meetings] are to force residents of the provinces, cities and counties all across the country to provide food aid for the construction workers at Pyongyang General Hospital,” the second source told RFA on April 28.
“The Supreme People’s Assembly is making each household give five kilograms (11 pounds) of rice or the equivalent in cash,” the second source said, adding, “The food situation is bad all over the place because of the coronavirus crisis, but I cannot understand how the people here in the provinces are supposed to feed Pyongyang.”
According to the second source, many of the residents were actually relieved when the coronavirus hit, because it meant they could get out of being mobilized for civic projects as happens every April.
“Just when we were relieved that there were no orders [to mobilize us] due to the coronavirus crisis, our moods soured when we were suddenly ordered to provide food for this construction site in Pyongyang.”
It is quite common in North Korea for all levels of government to tap the public to fund, contribute supplies like food or provide free labor for government projects.
In March, RFA reported that the government ordered schools across the country sanitized because of the onset of the coronavirus, but made the parents foot the bill.
Another RFA report in December described residents living near the Samjiyon tourist zone being forced to make the town look beautiful and collect money for uniforms so they could present themselves as an orderly crowd before Kim Jong Un at a ribbon cutting ceremony commemorating the completion of part of the zone.