North Korea’s Group 109 ratchets up crackdowns in Ryanggang Province

Hyesan, Ryanggang Province in August 2018
Hyesan, Ryanggang Province in August 2018. Image: Daily NK

Special units dispatched by the North Korean authorities are conducting intense crackdowns on North Koreans viewing South Korean dramas and movies. At the helm of these crackdowns is Group 109, which local sources say is extracting significant bribes from those caught in its crosshairs.

“Seven families at a farm near Samsu County were watching a South Korean drama at 5 AM on May 10 when Group 109 agents raided their house and confiscated the thumb drive and computer used to view the content ,” a Ryanggang Province-based source told Daily NK.

This incident shows that North Korean authorities are conducting their crackdowns on “anti-Socialist activities” strategically and, in this case at least, took advantage of the early morning hours – generally a time when people are less on guard – to stage a successful raid.

“The team of agents involved in the raid included an officer from the county police station, a computer expert affiliated with the county Party committee, and an officer affiliated with the county Youth Alliance who focuses on ‘trouble youth’ cases,” said the source, who emphasized the unique makeup of the raid team compared to typical teams.

Generally speaking, raid teams are made up of officers from the Ministry of State Security (MSS), Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) and others from local law enforcement agencies. This raid, however, included a computer expert and an officer from the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League.

The addition of these two officials suggests that North Korean authorities are reacting to the increase of North Koreans watching videos with USBs and notebook computers along with the widespread viewing of South Korean video content by the so-called “Jangmadang (market) Generation.”

Group 109 agents are also threatening those caught watching South Korean videos that “anyone over the age of 14 will be sent to correctional labor camps” and demanding that they pay bribes of 1,000 to 2,000 yuan (around 170,000 to 340,000 South Korean won), the source reported.

“Group 109 agents are telling people they have caught in the act, and whom they know, that 500 or 1,000 yuan is not enough money because the raid teams are made up of three people and they have their own quotas to meet [in terms of money collected]. The agents are demanding people pay at least 1,500 yuan,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province reported.

Some believe that North Korean authorities are demanding bribes because of the impact international sanctions is having on state coffers. In short, agents are collecting bribes so they can send the money to the central government, according to the source.

“People are saying that agents are purposefully targeting kids that can pay the bribes,” she said. In other words, North Koreans suspect that North Korean authorities are just conducting raids on families that are susceptible to raids.

“Kids just want to watch the content more if you tell them not to, so the crackdowns [are ineffective],” she said.

North Korean authorities are emphasizing that North Koreans guard against anti-Socialist activities as part of their efforts to strengthen popular support for the state ideology and prevent defections. The authorities are using a wide-range of tools and methods to crackdown on the viewing and distribution of foreign video content, including the use of harsh punishments, but North Koreans will likely continue to watch this content into the future.