North Korean merchants punished for doing business near major construction site

Samjiyon construction area
Samjiyon construction area. Image: Rodong Sinmun

As North Korea continues its massive modernization efforts in Samjiyon County, Daily NK sources say that local merchants are being targeted in public criticism by the authorities, who have labeled their activities “anti-socialist.”

“Three merchants were criticized in a public hearing held by provincial security officials including the head of the police in Ryanggang Province and four other high-level security officials,” a source in that province told Daily NK.

The public hearing was attended by members of local party committees and security offices in Samjiyon County, the county’s Youth Alliance Committee, 80 members of the elementary organization of the Samjiyon County branch of the Korean Socialist Women’s League, and managers of construction “shock teams” in Samjiyon.

“Three merchants, ranging in age from their early 30s to 50s, were criticized for conducting business activities near the construction site,” said the source.

They stood accused of negatively impacting the construction workers by operating “stores” near the construction site from early 2019, with the objective of earning money for themselves. The criticisms included the accusation that they had “disregarded” the party’s order to convert Samjiyon into a “paradise for the people.”

The three were publicly accused of “failing to pick up a shovel to help in the construction” and instead “focused on selling alcohol, cigarettes and food to construction workers who spent money earned from the illegal sale of construction materials.”

The theft of materials from major construction sites in Samjiyon and Wonsan has long been a problem for authorities. North Korean officials have strengthened measures to thwart these activities, albeit with little effect as international sanctions have made life more difficult for workers and site managers alike.

“The construction projects have dragged on for so long that many government officials involved in the projects are now stealing construction materials,” a Ryanggang Province-based source told Daily NK in September last year.

“The 216 Division is telling construction workers, soldiers from military construction teams and shock troops that anyone, regardless of rank, caught stealing state assets will be severely punished.”

Exasperated with the continual thefts, the government is now blaming local merchants for these crimes. The objective appears to be to punish the merchants to serve as an example to others while fomenting negative attitudes toward “capitalistic” activities.

A separate source in Ryanggang Province reported that during the public hearing, officials announced that people conducting business activities “are traitors who are helping the enemy and have no interest in anything except money,” and threatened the merchants with severe punishment.

The authorities then proceeded to confiscate the merchants’ goods and sentenced them to six months at a disciplinary labor center followed by work without pay at the Samjiyon construction site.