To curb theft and skip days at factories, North Korea is installing security cameras

Poor economy has driven workers to steal parts to sell outside
By Hyemin Son for RFA Korean
To curb theft and skip days at factories, North Korea is installing security cameras A security camera is wrapped in floral cloth during a media tour of the March 26 Electric Cable Factory in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2016.

As North Korea’s economy worsens, factory workers are stealing more parts, tools and other items to sell elsewhere and bring in a bit more income. Others are bribing their bosses to skip work so they can make more money doing other side jobs.

Authorities have taken notice, and are installing security cameras to monitor their activities, sources in the country say.

In the past, such closed-circuit television cameras, or CCTVs, were used only in high-priority areas, such as in busy intersections and government buildings, and almost exclusively in the capital Pyongyang. But starting in March, they began to appear in factories and other workplaces.

“Earlier this month, CCTVs were installed at every factory under the Tokchon Motor Complex. The cameras are running for 24 hours,” a source from South Pyongan Province, North of Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

The complex is North Korea’s foremost auto and auto-parts production facility and employs about 25,000 people.

“The Central Committee supplied CCTVs imported from China,” the source said. “The cameras are used to monitor who is stealing factory materials and who is spending their working hours away from their job.”

Side jobs

Although most men in North Korea are assigned a government job that they must report to, the salary is way below the cost of living, to the point that most people have to earn money in other ways to make ends meet. 

In most cases, this means that they have to go into business for themselves, often by selling goods or services in local marketplaces.

Most companies will accept bribes from their employees who want to seek their fortunes elsewhere, the sources say. But now the cameras will reveal who actually shows up for work.

“The CCTVs are installed at the main gate of each factory, and at the workplaces of each factory,” he said. “The workers are uncomfortable that the cameras reveal who goes to work at what time and who chats during the work day at the daily work review session every evening,”

Rampant theft

It’s the same situation at the Chongju Bearing Factory in the northwestern province of North Pyongan. Cameras have been installed to stop theft, which is rampant at the factory, a source there told RFA on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“Due to the lack of food received from rations, factory workers secretly steal bearings and material parts produced in the factory in their pockets,” he said. “They will later sell them at the market to make a living.”

Since the cameras were installed, several employees have been caught. 

“Now if they put even a small piece of iron in their pocket, they are disgraced publicly as a thief who steals state materials,” he said. “The workers are very unhappy about this.”

The source said that the CCTV cameras also changed the way that daily production reviews are conducted. 

Previously, the head of the work team reported production totals. But since the cameras were installed, the team leader must also report who worked a full eight hours and whether they stole anything.

Stealing a few items from factories is widespread in North Korea, and perpetrators are not usually punished beyond public criticism. But if the scale of the theft is large, those responsible can be punished as criminals under the law.

Installing cameras in factories is highly unusual, said a source using the pseudonym Kim Yong-il, who once was an administrative official in the North prior to escaping and resettling in South Korea.

“It seems like the cameras are not for the small factories. They should first go into the larger ones,” said Kim. “CCTVs enable discipline management. The other intention is to crack down on the leakage of materials and equipment from inside the factory.”

He said that if North Korea did nothing to increase wages and rations at the factories, using the cameras to force employees to show up to work and prevent them from stealing would result in not only increased productivity, it will also increase their dissatisfaction.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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