Fed up with corruption, North Koreans are attacking police, secret document shows

Disgruntled North Koreans are lashing out against police corruption by openly protesting against them and in some cases beating officers, according to a local government official who saw a secret document detailing the cases.

“Not long ago, I came across a secret document containing surprising information. Between July and December of last year, dozens of incidents of people protesting against the tyranny of police, or even extracting revenge by beating them up have occurred here in Ryanggang province,” an administrative official in the northern province told Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

The document had details on several violent attacks on police officers, he said.

“A resident from Paegam county and his son cornered a police officer on the roadside and he inflicted severe bruises on the officer’s head,” the official said. 

“It was said to be revenge for the officer insulting his wife by treating her like a criminal in her workplace by forcing her to confess that she was responsible for a loss that occurred at her workplace,” he said.

People have come to view the police as bullies, another resident of Ryanggang province told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely. 

“The anger of the residents against the police, who use all kinds of tyranny under the pretext of law enforcement, is increasing,” he said. “When you go to the marketplace, you can often see women protesting or arguing loudly, and pointing fingers at the police who are in charge.”

Sometimes fights will break out at the marketplace between police and merchants, the resident said.

“Nearby people, like women who have come to shop, will take the side of the merchant and they’ll protest against the police together,” he said. “To see a weak woman directly confronting a police officer while he was on duty would have been unimaginable in the past”

Economic collapse

North Korea’s centrally planned economy collapsed in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, and since then, salaries for government-assigned jobs have become essentially worthless. 

To survive, people have had to take on side jobs, start businesses, or – in the case of police officers – collect bribes.

The already struggling economy took a turn for the worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, and citizens who once tolerated the police making bribery rounds are now fed up, sources tell RFA.

In another incident, in the city of Hyesan, an officer stopped a driver and demanded gasoline and cash when the driver did not have the sufficient documents for driving on hand.

“In anger at the tyranny of the … officer, who detained him and his car for over two hours, the driver ran over the officer’s motorcycle with his car and beat him up until he was knocked out,” the official said. 

In another incident, a woman from Kimjongsuk county visited the house of the police officer who had sentenced her husband to 6 months at a labor training camp. She said her husband had not shown up for work for family reasons but the officer had treated him like an unemployed gangster.

“She protested by ripping off the officer’s sleeves and tearing the epaulet off of [his uniform],” the official said, adding that the frequency of incidents similar to those detailed in the internal document caused the police to submit a report, with relevant data, to the central government, asking for help and guidance.

“Even the social security agents I know are very perplexed,” he said. “They say that unless those who fight against law enforcement officers are punished severely, they won’t know what else could happen to them down the line.” 

Tipping Point

The government has however been taking measures to prevent these types of violent outbursts against police.

Since June 2022, citizens have been required to attend educational sessions on following the law in the workplace and at home, and the country’s leader Kim Jong Un has enacted policies that treat violence against law enforcement as acts against the state that must be punished severely.

But the cases reported in the document show that some citizens are so far past their breaking points that they are willing to disregard the risk they take when they go after the police.  

The sources said that it was likely that people in other parts of the country also feel animosity towards the police and that it is approaching a tipping point.

“Some of my friends insist that if a war breaks out, they will go out and kill the police first,” he said. “The people’s patience seems to be reaching its limit.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.