Authorities in North Korea have begun an invasive investigation into citizens’ handwriting as they try to find the culprit who defaced a fence in a public gathering place with anti-government graffiti, sources in the country told RFA.
In mid-September, a sign reading “Down with party officials, who live well by exploiting the people,” was scrawled on the fence surrounding the Unsan county marketplace in South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang.
“The local security department is in an uproar,” a resident of South Pyongan, who requested anonymity for security reasons told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
Because the sign was discovered so close to the 75th anniversary of the Oct. 10, 1945 founding of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, “security officials concluded that the graffiti is an attempt to overthrow party officials and is an anti-government act that directly criticizes the party’s central leadership, including the Highest Dignity. So, they began an investigation,” the source said, using an honorific term to refer to North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un.
The source said that security officials and law enforcement agencies started checking the handwriting of local residents to try to find who wrote the slogan.
“Under the orders of the security department, the leaders of the local neighborhood watch units visited each household, making both adults and children to write with pens on paper to be submitted to the security department,” the source said.
“They are closely comparing the graffiti and the handwriting examples, but they have yet to catch the criminal. So, they are starting a second handwriting investigation. The first time they made everyone write with their right hand, but this time, all the residents must write with their left,” said the source.
The source said residents are angry that the security department seems to be more concerned with the onerous handwriting investigation than to the public sentiment that inspired the slogan.
Another source told RFA Tuesday that even people from outside the province, who just happened to be in the area at the time, were also required to submit handwriting samples.
“Last week I received a quarantine permit and went to my relative’s house in Unsan, South Pyongan province,” said the second source, from neighboring North Pyongan province.
“While I was going about my business, a local security agent called me in for questioning. The security agent asked me about when I came from North Pyongan province and made me write on a piece of paper with my right hand and left hand. After confirming that my handwriting is different from the graffiti, he let me go,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
According to the second source, the two-week graffiti investigation has unintentionally made a hero of the unknown person who wrote the dissenting slogan.
“Local residents are expressing their great satisfaction with the graffiti that says, ‘Down with party officials,’ because the authorities and powerful people, including party officials, are well off, but normal residents suffer each year from different hardships,” the second source said.
“I know in North Pyongan province, it’s the same story. Apartments where the provincial party members live are always supplied with electricity, while the neighborhoods where ordinary residents live are not. So, at night you don’t really see any lights,” said the second source.
The second source discussed other privileges officials enjoy, such as always eating meat and rice, while ordinary citizens subsist on corn and less desirable staples.
“They just live it up while the ordinary residents work hard to make a living, and the resentment of the people builds up to the point that the people start to hate the officials and the country’s leadership.”
According to a 2019 report by the Boston-based analytics firm NSI, wealth inequality in North Korea is likely very high, but there is little to no primary North Korean data on the subject.
“However, anecdotal information and innovative means of tracking resource flows indicate that the DPRK may be by far the most unequal society in the world, with a small elite (less than 10%) controlling virtually all wealth, leaving the rest of the population at barely or below subsistence level,” the report said.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.