North Korean authorities have reportedly created a new helicopter unit under the Ministry of Social Security. The unit ostensibly exists to protect lives and safety during disasters and accidents, but the ulterior aim appears to be strengthening control over the people.

According to a Daily NK source in North Korea last Thursday, the authorities ordered the Ministry of Social Security to form a helicopter unit in mid-March. The ministry completed preparations to form the new unit at the end of April and conducted disaster relief exercises early last month.

The ministry’s helicopter unit is based in Chunghwa County, Pyongyang, where the headquarters of North Korea’s air force is located. The authorities have apparently allocated part of Chunghwa Air Base to the new unit.

The unit currently has 12 helicopters, reportedly former air force aircraft modified for their new role.

North Korean authorities plan to gradually expand that number with the goal of putting the ministry’s helicopter units in every province and city in the country.  

The new helicopter unit is reportedly battalion-strength, though it remains unknown exactly how many personnel have been assigned to it.

Ministry cadres staff the unit’s command, but the head of the battalion’s technical department is reportedly from the country’s air force. 

According to the text of the order creating the new unit, the battalion’s missions reportedly include protecting peoples’ lives during a disaster, putting down schemes and demonstrations by “impure elements” in times of emergency, participating in joint-operations with the military, and protecting “the leadership of the revolution” during periods the country is on wartime alert. 

North Korean military helicopters involved in an exercise. / Image: Seogwang

In peacetime, the unit is expected to mainly engage in disaster relief operations in conjunction with provincial branches of the Ministry of Social Security, but it will also engage in joint exercises with the military in preparation for “periods of emergency.” 

North Korean authorities will apparently also use the unit to track down defectors, missing people, and criminals.

Of the new unit’s listed missions, the one calling for putting down “schemes and demonstration by reactionary elements” deserves attention because it indicates that North Korean authorities are worried about mass revolts.

Exclusive reporting by Daily NK revealed in January that North Korea created a guard unit largely tasked with putting down demonstrations (article in Korean).

The new guard unit, named the 41st Battalion, is made up of about 900 top combat troops, commanders, and marksmen from the Supreme Guard Command.

While the 41st Battalion’s primary role is protecting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during an emergency, the primary role of the Ministry of Social Security’s helicopter unit is, in essence, to put down demonstrations.

In fact, there has been continuous talk of “unusual public sentiment” since last year’s closure of the country’s borders due to COVID-19.

The country’s economy has lost its vigor ever since the authorities blocked imports from abroad, and most people who make money from trade have seen their incomes drop considerably.

To prevent public sentiment from straying, North Korea authorities are strengthening controls over the people by bolstering ideological education and thoroughly blocking outside information from entering the country.

Nevertheless, the authorities are trying to sooth public opinion, stressing that “the people are [the country’s] masters.” During a training session for city and county party secretaries in March, even Kim Jong Un indicated awareness of public opinion, telling attendees that “secretaries in charge must always take public opinion seriously and accept public evaluation of their activities.”

Some of the cadres familiar with the creation of the new Ministry of Social Security helicopter unit are saying that the mood inside the country is so unusual that the authorities feel they have to prepare for potential demonstrations, according to the source. 

“Every province plans to build helicopter pads,” said the source. “Of course, [the helicopter unit] will play a role during disasters as well, but it will also bolster public order and control along with the Ministry of Social Security’s mobile strike teams.”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.