North Koreans are complaining about social controls imposed by their government under the pretext of curbing “problematic thought.” Meanwhile, the country’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) is keeping a close eye on public trends out of concern for ideological laxity and explosions of discontent.

A source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on Monday that 10 agents sent by the MSS headquarters in Pyongyang have been conducting inspections in Hoeryong since arriving in the city last October. 

He said they are conducting an intensive inspection of issues pertaining to the general state of the border region due to emergency quarantine efforts, activities to bust people who carry and use Chinese-made mobile phones, and measures to get people to turn themselves in for ideological wrongdoing.

Since last year, North Korea has been conducting widespread public crackdowns to “root out” so-called “anti-socialist and non-socialist” behavior. The three-month-long inspection in Hoeryong appears to be part of this crackdown.

However, local residents are complaining of significant distress due to the continuous tough crackdowns.

In fact, the source said lots of people have been arrested, and people who have illegal mobile phones are practically in hiding. He said almost nobody is calling China as the crackdown has been so severe that even ethnic Chinese avoid calling the country.

The source noted that agents surround the homes of those on their watchlist, waiting for them to use the phone. That makes it hard for people to place even a single international phone call.

The MSS has been arresting criminals or potential criminals by using frequency scanners to raid places when they get a hit, or placing mobile sentry posts in alleyways and using metal detectors to search the bags and persons of passersby. Recently, the security ministry is engaging in even more intense crackdowns.

A scene from Hoeryong taken back in 2013. / Image: Flickr, Creative Commons, Raymond Cunningham

The source claimed that the government gives its people nothing and rashly arrests even people struggling to put food on the table. He predicted that complaints and discontent will rise as people wonder how to make a living.

He further noted that agents in Hoeryong will complete their inspection shortly, but given that they are still in the city, nobody knows for sure when the crackdown will end. The source speculated that the inspections could continue, with crackdowns following more crackdowns.

As people express their discontent with more and more candor, the MSS is putting even more effort into scrutinizing “public trends.” They are apparently worried that public discontent could explode amid the crackdowns given that North Koreans have been suffering from severe economic difficulties due to the closure of the border. 

During last month’s Fourth Plenary Meeting of the Eighth Central Committee, North Korean leaders announced that they would conduct emergency quarantine efforts in “more progressive, humane ways.” This may be because the authorities feel burdened by the intense public discontent that existing quarantine policies have created. 

The MSS is using inspections to uncover corrupt enforcement agents, too. Indeed, the authorities blame corrupt cadres for the continued existence of “non-socialist phenomena” and violations of quarantine policy despite the crackdowns.

Within the MSS, the official line is that the organization is simply conducting a “yearly inspection of subordinate bodies,” the source said. He pointed out, however, that the security agency has been working really hard to bust agents taking bribes to look the other way at non-socialist activity and violations of quarantine policy. 

Agents who have been taking bribes are complaining that they will “starve to death” if things continue as they are, the source added.

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to