This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean police officers, who have a well-earned reputation for brutality, are being told to be nicer as the combination of a devastated economy and an outbreak of COVID cases raises fears of social unrest, sources in the country told RFA.
People in the isolated country have endured so much over the past few years that North Korean leaders are afraid pockets of resistance to the autocratic leadership might develop among people who are struggling the most.
Bullying and harassment, mainstays of North Korean law enforcement, could push frustrated citizens over the edge, hence the call for the new charm offensive.
“The internal directive calls for provincial, municipal, county, and regional security departments and agencies to strengthen internal discipline and work toward improving relations with residents,” a source connected to the judicial system in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“They issued this directive because internal discipline has been lax, and the police are not giving up the idea that they have to dominate over the people, even as social dissatisfaction increases with the COVID-19 situation. If the tyranny of the police officers is left alone, public dissent will accelerate,” he said.
North Korea is in a state of “maximum emergency” due to an outbreak of the coronavirus that spread starting in April. The government was forced to acknowledge its first confirmed cases and deaths after denying it had even a single case since the beginning of the pandemic.
Efforts to keep the virus out included shutting down the Sino Korean border in January 2020 and suspending all trade, which effectively destroyed what was left of the economy already weakened by international nuclear sanctions.
Though rail freight eventually resumed in 2022, it was shut down again with a resurgence of the virus in China.
The police command structure is also being reorganized and each regional department is required to give daily, weekly and monthly progress reports to the Ministry of Social Security in Pyongyang, the source said.
“The plan also calls for resolving conflicts with local residents and restoring the image of the police by making decisive improvements to the attitudes of the police officers and to the services they provide. This may go a long way towards addressing problems that arise within local jurisdictions,” the source said.
In the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, the provincial security bureau’s top brass went out to the various cities and districts to explain the directive to their subordinates, a source connected to the judicial system there told RFA.
“Social security officials are very nervous because how they execute this directive may determine the path of their future careers,” the second source said on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
The police in the area have had a noticeable change in attitude, according to the second source.
“They used to look down on the residents, even swearing at them and beating them up. Now they have become much gentler,” he said. “Even so, many residents are skeptical as to how long the trend will last.”
It is not the first time that the government has issued directives telling police to be nicer, so citizens remain wary that police brutality will soon become the norm again.
“In the past, directives from the central government would change how the police acted for a little while, but they would gradually become violent again over time,” he said.
Forcing the cops to be nice and friendly can only do so much at a time when so many people are desperate though.
“If they really want to boost public sentiment, it’s important that the authorities realize that their most urgent task should be to provide a way for the residents to make a living,” said the source.
“The authorities have cooked up half-hearted measures like this to try to deal with the cold public sentiment caused by COVID-19.”
Though North Korea has acknowledged that the virus is spreading inside the country, it has only reported a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases, which 38 North, a site that provides analysis on the country and is run by the U.S.-based Stimson Center think tank, attributed to insufficient testing capabilities.
The country is, however, keeping track of numbers of people who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. The number of new daily cases peaked at around 754,800 on May 19, before sharply decreasing over the next week.
Wednesday marked the first day since May 19 that fewer than 100,000 new cases of fever were recorded.
The Seoul-based Daily NK news outlet reported Wednesday that the people do not trust the government’s figures and believe the coronavirus situations is much worse than they are being told.