North Korean construction workers, forced to labor on a massive government housing project in Pyongyang, have resorted to robbery to secure enough money to buy food, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported Wednesday, citing anonymous local sources.
The construction workers, dubbed “storm troopers,” are part of a number of military-organized labor units mustered to participate in the nation’s housing construction efforts aimed at alleviating the country’s housing shortage. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un promised in January to build 50,000 new houses in five years, setting a goal of 10,000 for the end of 2021. The workers reportedly endure long hours, while many are malnourished.
A resident of Pyongyang, speaking anonymously, related accounts to RFA of the starving workers wandering off the construction grounds in search of easy marks from whom they could extort food money.
“A few days ago, some storm troopers who left the construction site in Soryong-dong assaulted and robbed a woman, taking everything valuable,” a Pyongyang resident told RFA. “In another incident, storm troopers beat up a man on the streets of Hyuam-dong and stole all the cash he had. The victims went to see the construction officials and protested in tears, but no action was taken, and assaults and robberies continued to happen.”
Another source detailed two incidents of the hungry workers’ criminal efforts turning fatal.
“Recently in Hyuam-dong a resident who was passing by a construction site was murdered. Police say he was robbed while riding his bicycle and lost his life,” they noted. The second fatality reportedly occurred over the recent national holiday.
“On Labor Day, May 1, as people gathered to celebrate the holiday, a resident who was out with his friends late at night returned home alone. He was found dead the next day near the construction site and this shocked the residents,” the source continued.
The reports of starving workers mugging passersby in pursuit of food money come as the country appears to face a large-scale famine. As Human Rights Watch (HRW) relayed in March of this year, accounts of rising hunger in the country, in part attributable to the government’s coronavirus protocols, which included closing the border with China, one of the nation’s largest trading partners.
“There is barely any food going into the country from China for almost two months now,” a missionary working in North Korea told HRW in September 2020. North Korea closed its borders in early 2020 in what was officially an effort to halt the spread of coronavirus into the country.
In early April, Kim told the nation to prepare for an “Arduous March,” a term with significance to North Koreans as it hearkens to a period of mass starvation in the 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Estimates of the death toll vary given the difficulty of getting accurate information from the regime, but the figures consistently number in the millions.
Amid reports of famine, the government continues to insist it does not have any cases of the Chinese coronavirus within its borders while Russia and South Korea, two nations in close proximity to the virus’s origin country of China, struggle to contend with the pandemic. Though the country closed its border with China along the Yalu River, it has remained noticeably porous, prompting additional troop deployments and yet resulting in no reported cases. Undermining the nation’s claim to have avoided the pandemic is its receipt of coronavirus vaccines through the World Health Organization, a seemingly unnecessary action for a country with no known cases.