This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea is trying to reinforce its brand of socialism by punishing citizens for “anti-socialist acts,” including distorting the lyrics of revolutionary songs, and forcing party officials to spend an extra two hours a day studying political ideology, sources in the country told RFA.
The list of acts and punishments, issued by the Central Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, is based on the relatively new Reactionary Idea and Culture Law, which authorities passed in Dec. 2020.
North Korean state media reported shortly after the law was promulgated that it is aimed at “further cementing our ideological, revolutionary and class positions by thoroughly preventing the inroads and spread of the antisocialist ideology and culture and firmly maintaining our idea, spirit and culture.”
The Seoul-based Korea Joongang Daily noted at the time that the law did not precisely define which acts and ideas could be called “reactionary.”
A government official in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service Monday that the standardized list issued this month defines the acts and allows authorities to harshly punish citizens for what they wear, for singing certain songs, or for failing to adhere to “public morals.”
“The list was approved by the Supreme Leader, so if caught, nobody will be able to avoid severe punishment,” said the source, referring to head of state Kim Jong Un.
“Depending on the level of violation, you could be sent to a short-term labor camp, a long-term labor camp or prison,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The new provision hopes to remove capitalist influences over society through banning specific acts or thoughtcrimes.
“Failure to observe public morals in the streets, parks, and recreation areas, distorting the lyrics of revolutionary songs, wearing anything other than Korean traditional clothing to a wedding, lending money or food at a high interest rate and seizing the borrower’s property when they can’t pay you back, and other various acts were defined as anti-socialist,” said the source.
“Additionally, instructions have been given to stop people from trying to make money by driving people on a motorcycle or bicycle, or by capturing animals and other natural resources,” the source said.
Other anti-socialist acts included receiving money for transporting people to work on farms, for renting out farming equipment, or stealing equipment or other materials from cooperative farms.
“Minor acts that the authorities had either tolerated or did not care about were also included in the punishments. The people are starting to get very nervous, as there is a high possibility that they will be punished over the most trivial things,” the source said.
A resident of the same province told RFA Monday that the new punishments could unfairly target people who live near the Chinese border.
“People in the border area have no choice but to violate these restrictions in their daily lives. Families with members who escaped North Korea may be in a position where they must risk making contact with the escapees because they rely on remittances for their livelihood,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“These days, not only phone calls, but also text messages are risky, making it really difficult for these families of escapees to get by.”
While North Korean authorities have recommended strict punishments for the people in the name of advancing the cause of socialism, the government is hoping to do the same by forcing those with leadership positions in the party to study political thought for an additional two hours each day.
“Under the direction of the central government, two extra hours of ideological study will be held every day, in addition to the weekly self-criticism session, Wednesday lecture session and Saturday study session,” a party official in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA June 9.
During the weekly self-criticism sessions, every citizen in North Korea must confess their loyalty shortcomings and receive criticism from their peers. The sessions have been described by North Korea watchers as a way for the government to deny human rights on the individual level.
“There was an order to report the results of the extra learning session in the self-criticism sessions. Party organizations across the country are intensifying cultural education for party officials under the slogan of ‘Nurturing Party Officials to Meet the Needs of Development in Reality,’” said the third source, who declined to be named.
The additional study hours are not sitting well with many of the officials.
“They say they already learn enough from the Saturday study session, the Wednesday lecture sessions and the self-criticism sessions. They wonder how much more they could possibly learn,” the third source said.
A party official in South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, confirmed to RFA the same day that the extra daily sessions began in June.
“The order was given to hold the two-hour daily study session for all party officials regardless of rank or position, so naturally, complaints are mounting among the officials,” the fourth source said.
“The Central Committee has threatened to increase penalties on any officials who defy party policy, saying that the ideological cracks and corruption of the party officials is one of the most dangerous factors we must protect the socialist system from,” said the fourth source.
The officials, upon hearing that, began griping that nobody would want to become a party official anymore, according to the fourth source.
Protecting society from the influences of South Korea and other capitalist countries has been a major concern for North Korea in recent years.
Last year RFA reported that the government cracked down on citizens for storing foreign videos on smartphones, for speaking with a South Korean accent or using South Korean slang, or even spelling words in the South Korean way in text messages.