Authorities in North Korea have committed two disgruntled food merchants to mental institutions after they lost their composure publicly, a situation that is becoming increasingly common due to the people’s difficulty in making a living during the coronavirus pandemic, sources in the country told RFA.
The pandemic has not been kind to residents who buy and sell goods to support themselves. Emergency restrictions have made travel between provinces illegal, meaning inter-provincial commerce is almost nonexistent.
Additionally, Beijing and Pyongyang agreed at the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 to close the Sino-Korean border and suspend all trade, a move that was disastrous for the North Korean economy, as well as its food situation.
The absence of Chinese imports has made food prices skyrocket at a time when many families are unable to make money.
People are now being pushed to the brink and are lashing out publicly due to their extremely difficult living circumstances, sources said.
“Last week, a woman in her 40s came out into the street crying loudly. She began to shout, ‘Kill me!’ and she swore at law enforcement agents. So they dragged her away,” a resident of Songchon county in South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.
“They detained her in a waiting room at the police department after she violently shook the collar of the security agent… The next day she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to the No. 49 hospital in Yangdok,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
The woman had been the sole breadwinner for a relatively large family and had lost her livelihood due to the pandemic.
“She had been living with her elderly parents, now in their 70s, and with three children,” the source said, adding, “She used to sell corn from the rural areas in the marketplace to make a living for the family, but when even short-distance travel became difficult due to emergency coronavirus restrictions, the business fell apart.”
“After severe difficulties, her resentment against the authorities exploded, so she came out into the street and caused a scene by crying and screaming and denouncing the authorities,” said the source.
North Koreans are seeing more and more of these kinds of incidents as economic conditions worsen, according to the source.
“This year alone, in Songchon county, about 10 people were committed to Yangdok Psychiatric Hospital,” a resident of Yangdok county in South Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.
“There are people who cannot control their anger because they couldn’t endure the hardships in their lives caused by the coronavirus crisis. They did things like screaming on the road in the middle of the night or voicing their anger or resentment toward authorities with harsh language,” said the source.
As poverty and hunger become more of a constant during the pandemic, these kinds of incidents will happen even more often, the source said.
“Resentment against the country and its leaders is so prevalent that people are driven to insanity. But the authorities do not care about the root causes of the problem and just lock them up as schizophrenics,” he said.
Another source, speaking from North Pyongan province’s Ryongchon county, told RFA the same day that a similar incident occurred there last week.
“A man in his 40s who made a living selling seafood from Chongjin at the Sinuiju market got in trouble for violating quarantine policy,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Chongjin is an east coast port city and capital of North Hamgyong province, three provinces to the east from northwestern coastal North Pyongan. Travel restrictions during the pandemic forbid travel between provinces.
“Authorities confiscated all of his seafood, and his business was completely ruined. Outraged by the injustice, the man took to drinking and set fire to the storage room at his house, causing a great disturbance in the neighborhood,” said the second source.
The agents took him to a detention center on charges of arson in a residential area, and once there, he continued to scream incessantly, according to the second source.
“The police department therefore classified him as mentally ill and put him in a psychiatric hospital,” the second source said.
“After the incident, residents have become suspicious of law enforcement for committing a mentally capable person simply because he defied law enforcement. They are critical of the authorities, saying they too may one day be committed if they find themselves in such a tough situation.”
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.