North Korea cracks down on senior citizen gatherings to stymie criticism

With no senior centers in the country, the country’s elderly live for daily gatherings at local parks.
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North Korea cracks down on senior citizen gatherings to stymie criticism In this file photo, North Korean men sit and smoke by a river in the North Pyongan Province, North Korea.

North Korea is cracking down on gatherings of elderly citizens, fearing that they will use their abundance of free time to criticize the government and its policies, sources in the country told RFA.

In public parks in both North and South Korea, old pensioners gather daily to pass the time by playing a local version of chess, share a glass of spirits, or discuss the events of the day.

These gatherings are popular in the South among elderly citizens who are on a budget, but in the North, a lack of senior welfare facilities leaves nothing else to do for practically every silver-haired urbanite.

Police have begun dispersing the elderly gathered in parks and other places, warning them not to stay together, sources said.

“An order came from the top to take measures to prevent the elderly from gathering because they always criticize the party and the socialist system,” an official from South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA’s Korean Service.

North Korea’s elderly have a lot to complain about these days. Authorities shut down the Sino-Korean border at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Jan. 2020 and suspended all trade with China, a move that crippled the economy already devastated by international nuclear sanctions.

Commerce in entire towns dried up and food imports could no longer cover agricultural production shortages. Food prices skyrocketed and starvation deaths have been reported, but sources told RFA that the people are resentful of the government for turning its back on them.

RFA reported last month that tests of cruise missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles angered residents who took the launches as an indication that the government was ignoring their concerns.

In such a breeding ground for dissent, authorities want to silence members of society who have time to complain to each other.

“Each jurisdiction is identifying where and when the elderly gather to spend their free time. They are cracking down on gatherings, saying they are illegal under the National Emergency Quarantine Act, which forbids large groups from gathering in public places,” the official said.

North Korea has been in an emergency quarantine posture since the beginning of the pandemic. Although Pyongyang has yet to confirm a single case, citizens have had to endure ever-stricter restrictions over the course of the pandemic.

But ending public gatherings could cut the elderly off from the rest of society.

“These meetings are a valuable communication space because there are no senior centers anywhere in the whole country,” said the official.

“So a lot of these old folks go to their meeting places every day, almost as if they’re going to work,” the official said.

The official said that the seniors come from all walks of life, and they tend to talk about politics, the economy, culture, and past experiences.

“Like-minded people will seek each other out and sitting together to chat and spend time with their friends could be their last joys in life, but if they don’t even get to do this, they will have nothing to live for,” the official said.

“Even though they worked hard for the country, their livelihood is not guaranteed at all. The country is not interested in the difficult living conditions of the elderly and the dissatisfaction of the elderly is bound to grow.”

The central government recently ordered cadres to “take measures to stop the elderly from coming together to complain about the hardships of life and making anti-party comments,” an executive from the city of Hyesan, bordering China in Ryanggang province, told RFA.

“The older members of the party said that complaining about the socialist system and griping about party rule is flat out disregarding their duties to the party… They told officials with elderly parents to fight on the side of the revolution in their homes by preventing their mothers and fathers from getting involved in such decadent behavior,” said the executive.

The park in front of the railroad station in Hyesan is one of the city’s most popular spots for seniors, according to the executive, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“My father, who was formerly a mid-level local official, had his cane and was on his way out the door to go to the park at the station. I told him what they discussed at the meeting and asked him not to go to the park,” the executive said.

“My father told me that a lot of the chats at the park are about the economy and people’s living situation, but they also criticize the regime and blame the leader [Kim Jong Un] and his family for leading the country into this mess,” said the executive.

The elderly are however not scared that they could be arrested, according to the executive.

“Elderly people have gone through many hardships… so they are all well aware of what went wrong… The authorities need to think deeply about why old people are so vocal in their criticism of the system and the party.”

Reported by Chang Gyu Ahn for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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