North Korea’s period of mass starvation in the 1990s, otherwise known as the Arduous March, saw a dramatic rise in “crimes of necessity” committed by those trying to survive.
Now, however, the spread of marketization in North Korea has caused a change in the criminal landscape with more organized and methodical actors. Recently, there have been reports of criminals disguising themselves as government officials to help them gain entry to private houses and steal personal items.
“The central government has ordered municipal and county police stations to prepare measures aimed at cutting out the root of evil crimes that threaten the lives of the people, the socialist system and general law and order,” said a North Pyongan Province-based source on September 7.
“Through local inminbans (people’s unit, a type of neighborhood watch) police officers are informing local residents about cases of robbery and educating them on how to prevent and report such incidents.”
One prime example of robbery discussed by the authorities occurred in North Pyongan Province last month (August). The criminals were alleged to have disguised themselves as health ministry officials and visited a house owned by a donju (a wealthy individual). The criminals injected the victim with a sedative, saying that it was a vaccination, and committed the crime as the house owner lost consciousness.
“The robbers were dressed and spoke in a way that didn’t arouse the suspicions of the victim. They scared him by saying he could catch a seriously debilitating disease if he didn’t receive the vaccination,” a separate source in North Pyongan Province reported.
“The criminals gave the victim a long lecture using a lot of medical terms and then said they would give him the shot for free.”
The thieves then stole a large number of items from the house as the owner slept, he said, emphasizing that the crime was very serious in nature because the criminals had put the victim’s life at risk and stolen his personal items while impersonating government officials.
Line 288 of North Korea’s Criminal Code states that anyone who steals the assets of another through the use of physical or verbal threats that endanger the victim’s life or health will receive a sentence of up to four years in a correctional labor camp (kyohwaso, also known as a re-education camp).
Those who have committed serial robberies of a large amount of assets or with accomplices are to be sentenced to at least four years and up to nine years in a labor reform camp.
Police are calling for local residents to be vigilant and report any suspicious people to the heads of their local inminban or the police station. They are also emphasizing that vaccinations by the health department and searches of houses by the police are always conducted with the head of the local inminban.
“The local police are checking the emergency contact systems in place and are telling residents to contact the heads of their local inminban or police station through their neighbors if necessary,” a third source in North Pyongan Province said.
“The local police are having a tough time because there has been an increase in female merchants being robbed at night as they return home with their produce, along with acts of violence and robbery committed by gangs of young people against other young people.”
The donju, who are prime targets of robbery, are implementing their own measures to protect themselves. They have banded together to install CCTV cameras near their houses and on nearby streets, and some have hired private security guards.
Seo Jae Pyong, the secretary-general of the Association of North Korean Defectors, told Daily NK that “as marketization continues to rapidly expand, the existing socialist moral code [in North Korea] is collapsing, only to be replaced by individualism and materialism […] There is the widespread belief that money can solve anything, and is more important than compassion or having a conscience.”
Seo also noted that “the moral ethics [once present in North Korean society] have collapsed as social corruption has increased […] The growing gap between the wealthy and the poor seems to be leading to the rising crime rate.”