This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean authorities are sending weapons to state enterprises and cooperative farms that have been ordered to create armed security forces to guard warehouses against theft of food and equipment by people driven to theft by dire economic conditions under the coronavirus pandemic, sources in the country told RFA.
The extreme measures were announced after a spate of thefts in which the valuable medicinal root ginseng, foodstuffs, and other supplies were stolen from state farms.
“People steal supplies from the state-run businesses and cooperative farms to trade for food,” a government official in North Pyongan province, on the border with China in northwestern North Korea, told RFA’s Korean service Wednesday.
“The Ministry of Public Security supplied state-run businesses and cooperative farms with weapons and ordered them to organize armed guards in warehouses where major supplies, including grain, are stored,” said the source.
“They are required to report any unusual phenomena to the People’s Committee and the local public security department each day,” the official added.
North Korea’s nascent market economy has been sputtering in the grip of U.N. and U.S. sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and the closure of the border and shutdown of all trade with China since January to control the coronavirus pandemic.
Troubles this year were compounded by three typhoons in late August and early September which caused extensive damage to farms, workplaces and homes.
The trade squeeze and typhoon damage to crops have caused food prices to spike while meagre incomes stagnate of fall, driving citizens to steal what they can to survive.
“People broke into a ginseng field managed by a cooperative farm in Ryongchon county, stealing overnight all the ginseng that takes several years to grow,” the North Pyongan source said.
“Across the country, dozens of cases of theft of property from state-run businesses and cooperative farms occurred this month alone, and as reports on these cases reached the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party], the government ordered local law enforcement agencies to come up with measures to tighten security nationwide,” added the source.
“The Cabinet and the Ministry of Public Security are preparing measures to prevent it,” the official said.
“They are drawing up a new legal clause on strengthening security and sending it down to agencies and cooperative farms for implementation,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
Another government official, based in North Hamgyong province in the country’s northeast, said the government is “conducting a nationwide project on the formation of a vigilance committee for state-run businesses and cooperative farms.”
“Supervision teams are organized by the People’s Committee in each province,” the source said, referring to the provincial administration. The governments were told to organize the security forces by appointing the second highest ranking police official as vice director, and to provide officials for the new division.
“But residents are grumbling that the authorities have failed to come up with measures to help the people because they are too busy looking out for themselves,” the North Hamgyong official said.
“Since most of the thefts that are happening these days are from people trying to eke out a living, the government should come up with measures to support their living situation. But the government is just trying to solve the problem in violent and coercive ways, such as forming an armed anti-theft taskforce.”