With food shortages driving hungry North Koreans to steal crops from fields, authorities have deployed military units to guard farmland during harvest season with orders to shoot crop thieves on sight, sources in the country told RFA.
The campaign to stop crop theft has unfolded amid an extensive investigation into the unprecedented theft of emergency wartime supplies of anti-biotics from a government warehouse,
Chronically short of food, North Korea has seen starvation deaths this year in the wake of the closure of the Sino-Korean border and suspension of trade with China in Jan. 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
With thievery from farms on the rise nationwide, authorities in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong have ordered the military to patrol the farms there, a military source from the area told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“The 9th Corps have organized groups to patrol the farms day and night because thefts are happening frequently,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“The General Staff Department ordered them to patrol the farms because… cooperative farm thefts are increasing all over the country,” said the source.
“If the authorities do nothing to prevent this, harvest yields will be greatly reduced,” the military source added.
The source said that the farms were tasked with unrealistic production goals at a ruling Workers Party congress at the beginning of this year, which called for a major agricultural windfall as a solution to projected shortages.
“Preventing residents’ intrusion into the farms for stealing crops is also important for the military to secure its own rations,” the source said.
The army built guard posts and formed patrol teams of about 20 soldiers that have been authorized to use deadly force, according to the source.
“Any illegal trespasser is regarded as ‘an impure element’ against the government system and is to be shot without warning, so the order is causing tension among the residents living near the farms,” the source said.
In nearby Ryanggang province, soldiers are also patrolling farms, said a resident of the provincial capital Hyesan.
“When I go to the outskirts of the city these days, it is common to see soldiers carrying weapons and patrolling the crops, so the people avoid those areas, especially at night,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“The people are terrified that they could be shot without warning if they merely approach the fields,” said the second source.
The local neighborhood watch units and the probate office are pushing an anti-crop theft campaign of education sessions and propaganda, according to the second source.
“But the residents are not happy about it. The current food problem is considered to be our country’s worst since the Arduous March,” said the second source, referring to the 1994-1998 famine that killed about 10 percent of the country’s population of 23 million.
“The people are saying that they have to eat to survive, even if it means stealing food.”
A dramatic theft of penicillin from a warehouse inside a guarded government building last month underscored how chronic medicine shortages have also gotten worse since the pandemic and the closure of the border with China.
In South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, police are investigating a large theft from a wartime medicinal storage facility of the antibiotic, which has recently doubled in price.
“The military drug management office’s no. 4 warehouse here in Songchon county was burglarized, so the judicial authorities are on alert,” a resident of the county in South Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service Sept. 5.
“That warehouse stockpiles and stores various emergency medicines, including antibiotics set aside for civilians in the event of war,” said the third source, who declined to be named.
Governments in every North Korean province, city and county manage reserve warehouses. No. 2 warehouses store food, and No. 4 warehouses store medicine and other necessities. Some municipalities put the warehouses in spent mines or other unused facilities, where they are usually guarded by armed men to prevent theft.
Songchon county’s No. 4 warehouse is located inside the drug management office building, under tight security, according to the South Pyongan source.
“The thief who broke in cut the lock with some kind of tool and stole hundreds of doses of penicillin from the warehouse. This is the first time that wartime medicine has been stolen, so the military’s judicial authorities have been on high alert and are conducting an investigation, but there’s been no progress,” the third source said.
According to the third source, the price of 100 milligrams of penicillin recently jumped from 1,500 won (U.S. $0.25 to about 3,000 ($0.50) won.
Another resident from South Pyongan told RFA that the unprecedented theft triggered an all-out investigation.
“Individual retailers who have been reported to have sold even one dose of penicillin in the local market or in private are the first to be investigated,” said the source on condition of anonymity.
“Due to the coronavirus crisis, the operation of pharmaceutical factories was greatly reduced,” said the South Pyongan resident.
“Even the antibiotic supplies from China are depleted, leading to a big medicine shortage in the market. So, the police are investigating where sellers are getting their penicillin,” added the source.
Police investigated one retailer who said he bought penicillin off a merchant from another area a few months ago, according to the South Pyongan source.
“They searched the house, checked the production dates on the penicillin doses found in their homes, but not a single dose was found to be stolen from the No. 4 warehouse,” the fourth source said.
“Even if they catch the thief, the head of Songchon county’s drug management office will not avoid heavy punishment.”
Though Korean War hostilities ended in an armistice agreement in 1953, North Korea technically remains at war with the more prosperous South.
Reported by Myungchul Lee and Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun and Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.