This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Members of North Korea’s military are robbing citizens on the streets to secure materials needed to celebrate the signing of the July 27, 1953 armistice agreement that ended Korean War hostilities, sources in the country told RFA.
North Korea has designated the anniversary of the agreement as a national holiday called the “Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War,” even though the war ended in what is widely considered to be a stalemate.
The country’s cash-strapped government has in recent years struggled to adequately supply the military with even food and basic necessities, often leaving individual units to fend for themselves.
Over the past few years, incidents of the military “commandeering” supplies from civilians or forcing them to “donate” them have been common. But as economic conditions worsen under international nuclear sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, soldiers are now increasingly shaking down people who dare to walk the streets alone.
The terrified citizens are now referring to the roving bands of soldiers looking to take their belongings as “bandits.”
“Robbery and assault ahead of the 7.27 Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War by soldiers here in Pyongsan county just crosses the line,” a resident of North Hwanghae province, south of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service July 21.
“When residents see soldiers even from a distance on the street, they feel afraid and go out of their way to avoid them,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Items frequently stolen from citizens include cigarettes, cash, food, and other things that the government would normally supply them, according to the source.
“Last week a resident of Pyongsan county was walking down a quiet road when three soldiers popped up and threatened him, demanding all his belongings,” the source said.
“One of the soldiers said, ‘The Day of Victory in the war is coming soon, so shouldn’t we have something for the holiday?’ and the other two soldiers forcibly took the resident’s backpack and ran away,” said the source.
“It’s not like this never happened before, but these days it occurs all too often… Residents criticize the government authorities, saying ‘If the state provided enough food for soldiers, they wouldn’t do this, but the state doesn’t support the military,’” the source said.
A military source in the northeastern city of Chongjin in North Hamgyong province confirmed to RFA the same day that soldiers there were also mugging citizens.
“There have been five robbery incidents this month alone by soldiers of a military unit in Panjuk-dong, so public opinion toward the soldiers has greatly worsened,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“The soldiers go out in groups to residential areas to steal food and money for the upcoming 7.27 Victory Day,” said the second source.
The military source said the higher ranked corporals and sergeants sent privates to residential areas to loot in order to prepare for the holiday by procuring food, alcohol, cigarettes, and daily supplies by “any means possible.”
“The people are resentful over the muggings, saying, ‘Stealing from powerless citizens is absolutely not acceptable, no matter how hard it is for the soldiers to endure the supply shortage,’” the second source said.
“They are also resentful that the military has been reduced to bandits that rob the people instead of protecting the homeland and its citizens, all because the state gave up support for the military,” said the second source.
According to the second source, the military conducts education sessions for soldiers to prevent crimes from happening, but taking things from the people technically does not violate any rules.
“As long as it is not murder, it’s common for stealing from the residents to go on without investigation or punishment within the military justice system.”
Thefts by members of the military often occur whenever their units fail to meet their basic needs.
RFA reported in May that military personnel working on a large national construction project in the capital Pyongyang were so poorly fed that many of them had resorted to mugging people who live near the construction site in order to buy food.
In another RFA report published in 2019, soldiers in rural mountainous Kangwon province in the country’s east, bordering South Korea, were so undersupplied during winter training at the beginning of that year that they resorted to breaking into residents’ homes to loot the food and valuables within.