As economic conditions worsen in North Korea, some desperate citizens have turned to kidnapping, with at least two children snatched in separate incidents in an attempt to extract ransom money from their families, sources in the country told RFA.
An economy already hindered by international nuclear sanctions got worse when the coronavirus pandemic started and Beijing and Pyongyang closed their border and suspended all trade in Jan. 2020. With much of North Korea’s economy based on trading goods from China, commerce in entire towns dried up and chronic food shortages got worse.
The prolonged pandemic has made people increasingly desperate to try to make a living. Some are targeting children that they can hold for ransom.
“A six-year-old girl disappeared in Songchon county while playing by the river in front of her house in the middle of this month,” a resident of South Pyongan province, North of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service Sunday.
“She was kidnapped and taken hostage by a man in his 30s living in a faraway village from hers. The kidnapper knew that her family was well-off and even got her parents’ cellphone number before he took her to get ransom money,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
According to the source, the kidnapper locked the girl up in a storage area in his house and called her parents to demand 500,000 won (about U.S. $75).
“Police were able to track down the cellphone and arrest the kidnapper, and they returned the child to her parents. The kidnapper is in a detention center at the police department,” the source said.
“Once the investigation is complete, he will be sentenced and sent to a correctional facility,” said the source.
Another resident of the province told RFA that another kidnapper took a 10-year-old boy at around the same time.
“In the middle of the month, a 10-year-old boy was walking along a mountain road in Yangdok county when a man in his 40s rode up on his motorcycle to offer the child a ride home,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The man was caught after the boy reported what happened to a police officer after he managed to escape and return home on his own,” the second source said.
According to the second source, the second kidnapper got the idea for his crime from the movies.
“He confessed during the police investigation that he borrowed his friend’s motorcycle to copy a scene from a foreign movie in which actors took a hostage for ransom. He said he had no food to eat and was suffering from hunger,” the second source said.
“Residents are very anxious about what will happen in the future, and they are blaming the authorities for turning a blind eye to people’s living difficulties, yet still focus on controlling every aspect of their lives,” said the second source.
Conditions in North Korea are much worse than the outside world knows, according to ethnic Chinese residents who traveled to China in mid-July.
Called Hwagyo in Korean, the PRC citizens who come from families who have lived in North Korea for generations have fewer travel restrictions than their North Korean citizen neighbors.
While in China in mid-July, several Hwagyo visitors relayed how dire the situation was to their contacts in China.
“A Hwagyo friend of who returned from Yangdok, South Pyongan province a few days ago confessed that it had been difficult to eat even three meals a day back in North Korea,” a Hwagyo in Dandong, Liaoning province, China told RFA Aug. 26.
“As he was not able to keep his business going due to the coronavirus pandemic, he barely survived each day by borrowing money from acquaintances,” the Dandong source said, adding that the visitor told him the situation was much worse what outsiders are aware of.
Another Hwagyo source in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China, told RFA that a Hwagyo visitor explained that food has become extremely expensive in North Korea.
“A Hwagyo who returned from Pyongsong county, South Pyongan province last month said that he had not even seen white rice for a while, because food prices in North Korea have skyrocketed,” the Shenyang source said.
“Shedding tears, he said that he had been off the seed money for his business for a while, but when that ran out, he had to continually borrow money to survive.”
RFA reported in July that three Hwagyo in different parts of North Korea had starved to death after the border closure ruined their businesses and they had no access to food.
The news was shocking to their communities because Hwagyo are usually among the most well-off residents because they are able to run lucrative import-export businesses because they can more freely travel to China.
A quarter century after famine killed as many as a tenth of North Korea’s 23 million people, the food situation in North Korea is again dire.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in a recent report that North Korea would be short about 860,000 tons of food this year, about two months of normal demand.
The forecast followed a warning from U.N Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Tomás Ojea Quintana in March that the closure of the Sino-Korean border had led to reported “deaths by starvation” and growing ranks of children and elderly who have resorted to begging.
Reported by Hyemin Son and Jeong Yon Park for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
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