Resident discusses life in one of North Korea’s most sensitive regions

Guard post and checkpoint in North Pyongan Province.
Guard post and checkpoint in North Pyongan Province. Image: Daily NK

Evidence suggests that North Korea is continuing to enrich uranium at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, according to an analysis of satellite photos of the facility by 38th North. The photos indicate that the uranium enrichment process (UEP) is currently in operation. There are few instances, however, of such information coming from human intelligence sources on the ground. Why is that the case?

In a follow-up interview, a source knowledgeable about life in Bungang-ri Workers District, in Yongbyon County, told Daily NK that “the authorities don’t permit even one iota of information to leak from that region.”

“It is difficult to enter the area, but even more difficult to leave it,” he continued. “People entering the area need to sign a document promising not to leak any information about what is going on there.”

He recounted the case of an individual who was picking tree leaves in Bungang and discovered by the authorities. “They came all the way to Hyesan to arrest him,” he said.

“That’s how sensitive they are about the leakage of information from there.”

Residents of Bungang are required to take part in construction projects, work as border guards, and must even take part in special projects involving the research institute. There are few cases, however, of residents being placed in jobs outside of the area. People from other areas are posted in military-related positions in Bungang, but Bungang residents are seemingly banned from serving in other areas of the country.

There are, of course, Bungang residents who wish to leave, particularly government officials.

“Government officials with money and some authority all try to send their kids to other places. Ordinary people, however, don’t even attempt it,” he said.

“Bungang residents receive government rations. They know that leaving the area means they’ll have to fend for themselves. They don’t know how to live without government support because they’ve always received rations.”

However, the rations are not generous and are simply intended to prevent residents from starving and from rising up against the government.

“Most people are content with their lives because they have enough food to eat. The authorities in the area, however, control people’s thoughts quite harshly. People disappear into thin air at times, and public trials are still held. Government officials have been executed by firing squad too.”

Local residents do not express much interest in politics because of the government rations they receive and the harsh ideological control the authorities wield over them. The area’s residents have become victims of the North Korean state’s efforts to “dumb them down.”

“People don’t have an interest in politics. They just care about what they’ll eat that day. The government’s control is so strong that people can’t criticize anything even if they wanted to,” the source asserted.

“When Jang Song Thaek died in December 2013, local residents just parroted what the government said: ‘He was a bad man.’ They also criticize anyone else the government tells them to. After the rise of Kim Jong Un, control in the area has only gotten worse.”

The authorities also ensure that external information does not enter the area. The North Korean authorities not only prevent people from bringing USBs into the area, but also have a network that monitors the spread of information.

There are Bungang residents who still own “Sonamu (pine)” televisions, a North Korean brand of television produced in the 1980s. North Koreans in other areas of the country increasingly have access to smartphones, DVD players and other devices to watch videos, but Bungang residents lack such access, according to the source.

“The nuclear research institute is there so the area is always supplied with electricity. There’s a lot of electricity, so most houses in Bungang don’t have solar panels. Bungang residents still use energy-inefficient televisions because there is just so much electricity to go around it seems,” he said.

“The TVs are black and white with huge tubes sticking out the back, and people have fixed them up over the years so that they still work. Bungang residents use old, out-dated products and their thinking is backwards too.”