North Korean authorities have launched a nationwide effort to identify and register elderly “vagrants” who are aged 60 and over and have announced plans to build new nursing homes if necessary, Daily NK has learned. 

The authorities plan to determine whether these elderly citizens have family members to take care of them; if not, they will reportedly be placed in nursing homes. 

UPHOLDING “SOCIALIST CULTURE”

According to a Daily NK source in the country on May 19, the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the North Korean communist party’s Central Committee recently issued an order to provincial party organizations – including local people’s committees and judicial agencies – to assess the number of homeless senior citizens who are aged 60 and above (60 is the official retirement age in North Korea). 

Dedicated units were formed to take charge of this effort on May 18 in the country’s nine provinces and four directly-administered or “special” cities (직할시 / 특별시). The units were reportedly created under the aim to uphold the “fundamentals of socialism, socialist culture and socialist morality.” 

Each of these units is made up of around ten individuals selected from provincial party propaganda departments, provincial people’s committee welfare management divisions and workers from the resident registration divisions of provincial Ministry of People’s Safety (MPS) offices. 

These units will cooperate with the respective provincial, municipal and county-level people’s committees, judicial institutions and local inminban (North Korea’s lowest administrative unit) to seek out elderly citizens who live alone or identify those above the age of 60 not yet reported dead. 

These efforts are expected to be completed by May of next year, when the results of the investigation will be reported to the Central Committee. 

CONCERN FROM ABOVE

The initiative to exert better control over elderly “vagrants” was reportedly launched after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made “remarks of concern” (심려 말씀) in early February. Kim reportedly stated that “contrary to the intent of the party and its aim to distinguish our country as a world-class tourist destination, the proliferation of vagrant elderly citizens is an unethical phenomenon that goes against the fundamentals of our style of socialism, which places great value on filial piety.” 

He also added that “The reputation of our country is at stake, given that such a phenomenon may reflect badly on socialism in the eyes of foreigners or the world’s progressive peoples.”

An elderly North Korean man is seen sitting in Pyongyang. / Image: Daily NK

Kim then went on to state that “The government will identify and protect all the elderly vagrants without families – who have been abandoned or cast out.”

Following these remarks, the Propaganda and Agitation Department ordered that all elderly vagrants nationwide should be registered and placed into nursing homes, and that either new nursing homes should be constructed or existing facilities repaired and improved. 

The department also ordered that the number of elderly individuals currently in nursing homes – as well as the dietary and lifestyle conditions and medical facilities at the nursing homes – should be accounted for and replenished or supplemented where necessary.

The department also ordered the heads of party committees in each province to engage in these efforts to better exert control over elderly vagrants “as if you yourself are taking care of your parents or trying to find parents who have gone missing.” 

The department appears to be placing a great deal of emphasis on the initiative, even demanding that each province put together graphs to track how many elderly people they have identified and report this data back to department officials. 

CONCERN FROM BELOW

“All of the provinces are worried about this new order,” the source told Daily NK. “The biggest issues raised thus far are what to do with [elderly] people caught up in this dragnet who aren’t from the province or if the individual has committed a crime. I understand that the units involved in the initiative are working together to deal with these issues.” 

While North Koreans generally appreciate the initiative’s aims, there is concern that the government’s efforts to round up solitary elderly people over the age of 60 will place an undue burden on their families. 

This is because the government’s initiative – at its core – is aimed at sending solitary elderly people 60 and above to nursing homes. It follows, then, that those elderly people below 60 or who have families will be forcibly returned to their families. The families will then be forced to take over the burden of caring for them. 

“The aim of the initiative to take care of the elderly is good, but some people think that elderly people identified through this initiative who still have family will just be sent back to their families,” the source said. 

“If you’re unable to feed your own family, how can you be expected to take care of your parents? Some people are saying that the elderly people will either be kicked out of their family’s houses again or starve to death – unless, of course, they choose to just run away,” he added. 

Some North Koreans are reportedly saying that the state should provide a certain level of financial assistance to families taking care of elderly parents. 

Most people who share this view cited economic difficulties as a major barrier to effectively taking care of elderly parents. “Paying for the day-to-day costs of living is hard enough. We can’t earn money whether we go to work or conduct our own private business,” said one, while another asked rhetorically, “Who in the world would abandon their own parents if they had enough to eat?” Another reportedly said, “If you want to support the elderly, just give them food. They are only dying early because they’re hungry.”

Some North Koreans are also expressing negative opinions toward the government’s plans to expand and repair nursing homes. They are pointing out that there is no use in expanding the facilities if elderly people who already have family members to take care of them are not allowed to use the facilities. 

The source told Daily NK that people are also complaining about corruption among provincial party officials and judges who reportedly use empty rooms at nursing homes like hotel rooms. Some wondered whether such behavior is known by the central authorities, he said. 

There is also criticism in the country directed toward the party’s “armchair” policies: “If they’re going to launch a new policy, they should first try to understand the problem first and hear what the people have to say,” one person was quoted as saying, while another reportedly said: “The only proposals that get implemented are those presented by party officials, so of course nothing will get done properly.”

*Translated by Violet Kim

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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