SEOUL—Authorities in North Korea’s Yangang province have warned citizens of the isolated Stalinist state to be vigilant for “hostile elements” following a spate of arson attacks, local residents said.
“Fires of unknown origin have been set to several residential houses,” a resident of Yangang said in a recent interview.
“Ministry of Public Security agents and public prosecutors have been mobilized to conduct an investigation,” said the source, who added that there is an “absence of any leads or clues” in the attacks.
Instead, the government’s propaganda machine was blaming “hostile elements inside North Korea” for the attacks, the source added.
Local people have been asked to be on their guard and to report any suspicious activity.
Several Yangang residents said they see the attacks as a form of protest against the ruling Workers’ Party.
The serial arsons are “undoubtedly acts by someone holding a grudge against our [North Korean] system,” one resident said.
Others agreed, saying that similar arson attacks had occurred on a daily basis during the last great famine (1995-97), which is known inside North Korea as “the Arduous March.”
Similar pattern to fires
“Leaders of local Party organizations were summoned and briefed, being told that they needed to emphasize the need for heightened vigilance to help search out ‘hostile elements inside North Korea,’” a third Yangang resident said.
Agents in charge of local offices of the State Security Department and the Ministry of Public Security met with local leaders and asked them to investigate the behavior of people in their communities, the source added.
Investigators have made it known that the fires in the attacks burned rapidly and were all set in a similar manner.
In one attack, on a tenement building in the Kangu district of Hyesan city inhabited by five families, fires were set simultaneously on two different sides of the building, residents said.
They said many thought that the fires were linked to a recent surge in rice prices to 1,000 won (U.S. $1.50) per kilo following recent currency reforms. The average monthly salary in North Korea is around 2,000 won (U.S. $3).
With popular discontent on the rise, the authorities are said to be treating the attacks as an attack on North Korea’s political system, rather than the work of a simple criminal.
The Hyesan city fire was followed by rapid fire outbreaks in the middle of the night in other parts of the city, including Choon Dong and Hyesan Dong districts, local residents said.
They said the blazes were quickly contained.
Whether anyone was injured or killed in the attacks was unknown.
In the Hyesan Dong attack, the fire took hold of a five-story apartment building opposite Chungryun Station in Hyesan, known as the “Pharmacy Building,” which was home to 70 families.
According to sources, “the blaze broke out in several places, in storage rooms under the apartment building, and quickly spread to the entire building.”
The same sources also said that “the authorities found no material evidence.”
That fire broke out at midnight on April 16, just as “a week of heightened vigilance” was proclaimed in observation of late former supreme leader Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
The coincidence had led the authorities to suspect a political motive behind the blaze, residents said.
Yangang was last plagued by a spate of arson attacks in 1998, at the height of the famine.
Several buildings were destroyed by fire at that time, including the Yangang Theater for the Performing Arts and the office of the Yangang People’s Committee.
Buildings hosting the “Kim Il Sung Revolutionary Ideology Research Rooms”—named after the country’s founding leader—were also set ablaze.
Mindful of local history, the authorities are now calling on local people to help identifying and apprehending those responsible.
Original reporting in Korean by Sung Hwi Moon. Korean service director: Bong Park. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.