Behind the rise of homeless people in North Korea

To better understand the realities faced by the homeless in North Korea, Daily NK recently conducted interviews with two current and former North Korean residents

Daily NK has reported on the increase of homeless people in North Korea over the past several months. In February, there were reports that North Korean officials began cracking down on the movements of “vagrants,” and the country has recently moved to identify elderly “vagrants” with a view to either send them to nursing homes or return them to their families.

To better understand the realities faced by the homeless in North Korea, Daily NK recently conducted interviews with one current resident of North Korea living in Ryanggang Province and a defector originally from Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province, who arrived in South Korea last year.

Q. Is it easy to spot homeless people walking around? 

(Current resident of North Korea, “A”): They’ve increased this year. I didn’t see them much because they were rounded up, but [their numbers] are increasing.

(Defector, “B”): There was a pronounced increase [in homeless people] last year. I didn’t pay much attention to them so I don’t know exactly how many I saw, but it seems like there was a four or even five-fold increase. I saw a lot of dirty-faced children around the markets and railway stations.

Q. Is the increase in the homeless similar to what was witnessed during the “Arduous March” period? 

A: No, there’s not as many now, but that doesn’t mean they’re not suffering.

B: There’s fewer around than during the Arduous March period. At that time, people became homeless because they didn’t know how to earn money by themselves. Large numbers of wandering vagrants disappeared when people turned to the markets to start earning money. Even despite the [international] sanctions [on North Korea], people were surviving, but I began seeing [homeless people] here and there starting from last year.

A “kkotjebi” in Hyesan. Photo taken in June 2020. / Image: Daily NK

Q. Are most of the homeless children? 

A: There are now a lot of elderly homeless people [referred to as “elderly kkojetbi“] about. They don’t have jobs to earn money and they can’t rely on their kids, who are also suffering economically.

B: When I lived in North Korea, I traveled around for business to Danchon, Chongjin, Wonsan, Haeju, Hamhung and other places and the people I saw on the streets were of all different ages – from young kids to elderly people.

Q. What reasons are there for the increase in homeless people in North Korea, particularly among the elderly? 

A: The [main] reason is the economy, of course. There are a lot of people who are abandoning their kids. People can’t be expected to take care of elderly people when they are failing to take care of their kids, right? Many people believe that elderly people simply eat up food supplies, so it’s not hard to imagine they just want their elderly [parents] to leave [their houses]. Nowadays, the atmosphere [in the country] is that food shouldn’t be given to non-working people. In other words, only people who work should get rice – no matter how well the year’s harvest is. The families of military officers also face the prospect of food shortages if they don’t work. Have you ever seen the government hand out rice just because they have huge stores of it? Some elderly people are faced with abandonment [by their families], while others just leave their families because they can’t rely on them anymore.

B: [International] sanctions are impacting the lives of ordinary people. People are abandoning their kids. That’s what the world has come to now.

Q. Are there differences [in this situation regarding the homeless in North Korea] compared to the past? 

A: Elderly people wear boots to make sure their foot don’t freeze when they go to the edges of streams to collect plastic. They put on what they need [to protect themselves]. Elderly homeless people aren’t filthy. They keep themselves clean.

B: Today’s homeless people don’t just rely on what they can scrounge up while wandering around. Some who are strong and keep themselves clean are used as ‘servants’ by people with money. These people give the homeless a place to sleep, food and even small amounts of cash. Some of the homeless simply became servants of the wealthy.

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Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to