North Korean authorities hire more informants to clamp down on dissent

Military guard post in North Pyongan Province along the Amnok/Yalu River. Image: Daily NK

The North Korean authorities have recently increased the number of secret informants in North Korean cities straddling the Sino-DPRK border as part of efforts to prevent further defections, sources in the country say.

“Ministry of State Security (MSS) informants have increased threefold in North Korean cities on the Sino-DPRK border,” said a North Korean source currently in China on November 2. “The authorities have massively increased the number of people monitoring North Koreans living in the border cities.”

“The number of MSS informants has increased significantly, which means the authorities intend to watch everyone’s movements very closely,” another source in China with ties to North Korea added.

The rising number of informants on the ground is aimed at strengthening the security state’s “first line of defense” against defections. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered security services to “understand everything on the ground, even the fall of a needle,” after gaining power.

The developments also suggest that the authorities do not intend to loosen any existing restrictions on freedom of speech or thought. The rise in the number of informants comes after orders from the central government in the wake of the recent Pyongyang summit to “thoroughly comprehend what WPK [Workers’ Party of Korea] members and the people are thinking.”

A Ryanggang Province-based source told Daily NK, “People are saying amongst themselves that the [summits] have, unexpectedly, led to no successes and the sanctions are still in place. They are upset that the government talked about unification just being around the corner, but in reality, nothing has really changed.”

The authorities have detected discontent among the population recently and appear to have taken action by increasing the number informants to monitor the sentiment.

The need to greatly increase the number of informants has reportedly led to a loosening of the hiring requirements. Informants previously had to come from “good backgrounds” in the “core class” (as opposed to the wavering or hostile classes) and would be disqualified if any of their relatives had criminal records.

Moreover, there were many cases in which informants were from the actual locations that the monitoring activities were targeted at as this allowed them to accurately understand local conditions.

Recently, however, the authorities have approached smugglers to become informants, according to a separate source in Ryanggang Province, who noted that “informants were not selected from among smugglers in the past, but now they’re reportedly popular picks by the MSS.”

As the news of the recent arrest of a broker helping defectors in Onsong, North Hamgyong Province, has spread along with news of the recent rise in informants, North Koreans are now saying more than ever that “it’s more dangerous than before.”  

“It was somewhat easy to guess who was an informant in the past,” said the second Ryanggang Province source, suggesting that people are now being intimidated into silence. “But now people are saying it’s more difficult to know […] They now have to be careful about what they say.”

“I’ve heard fewer people are heading directly to South Korea from North Korea nowadays,” a defector living in Seoul told Daily NK on condition of anonymity.

“Brokers are not helping as many defectors as before because they’re afraid of being caught.”

Lee Sang Yong is editor-in-chief of Daily NK and previously spent a number of years working as one of the publication’s foreign correspondents in China. He can be reached at