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Stuck between the state and neighbors, North Korean local watch chiefs are quitting

North Koreans responsible for leading weekly meetings to enforce the party’s will over their neighbors are resigning, saying their government’s expectations of them are too high, sources in the country told RFA.

Every North Korean citizen is part of a so-called neighborhood watch unit. These groups consist of about 20 households and meet regularly to hear policy announcements, confess loyalty infractions, accuse their neighbors of various missteps, and, ultimately, work together when directed to provide free labor for public projects.

Three neighborhood watch unit leaders from Hamhung in the eastern province of South Hamgyong tendered their resignations at the beginning of April, a resident of the province told RFA’s Korean Service April 5 on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The three of them used various excuses to claim that they will not be able to keep their roles. It was just like last month when five neighborhood watch unit leaders told the local party organizations that they were resigning because they were sick,” he said.

The watch units are the lowest level of government organizations, but they exert individual control over each citizen, so neighbors tend to try to get on their unit leader’s good side. Leaders are responsible for reporting any concerning activities or policy violations among their groups to higher-ups.

But during the current economic slump in North Korea, the government has asked more than usual from neighborhood watch units.

The leaders face new pressures both from above and below — they are on the receiving end of their neighbors’ frustrations, and they are blamed by their superiors when their units underperform.

The government’s recent excessive taxation is what caused the watch unit leaders in Hamhung to quit, according to the source.

“They are supposed to control and manage the residents, but they are giving up their roles … because authorities are always imposing taxes every two weeks for things like supporting the rural areas and helping fund construction in Pyongyang,” he said.

The capital Pyongyang is in the middle of a five-year construction plan to build 50,000 new homes by the end of 2025 that is behind schedule and requires massive amounts of money for construction materials and food for workers. Residents from outside the capital who are being asked to fund the project will likely never be granted permission to even visit Pyongyang.

“The head of the neighborhood watch unit is responsible for collecting taxes from the residents. But residents who are having a hard time living due to the pandemic are angry at the authorities’ orders to pay more money and rice, and are pouring their anger into the leader responsible for collecting directly from them,” he said.

“If the neighborhood watch unit’s tax quota is not collected in time due to protests and opposition from the residents, the heads of the neighborhood watch unit will be questioned by the higher levels in the local party organization. So they are under excessive pressure between the residents and the local party organization and feel skeptical about their own roles. That is why many are choosing to give up.”

A group of residents in the city of Chongju in the northwestern province of North Pyongan has come to despise their neighborhood watch unit leader, a resident there told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“The neighborhood watch unit leader knocks on the door of the house every few days and also calls them to mobilization every morning, so he is the most hated person here,” said the second source.

“These days, we’ve been ordered to work on city development. The cleanup and painting of each section of road in the city is assigned to each watch unit. The unit leaders are having trouble getting the people to come out and work in the morning,” he said.

Out of about 20 households, only eight to 10 people end up actually working on the roads, he said. The rest make up excuses, saying they are too sick to work, for example.

“When the project isn’t progressing properly, the neighborhood watch unit leader must answer to the local party organization,” the second source said.

“Having to carry out the government’s excessive mobilization orders is making the unit leaders skeptical about their roles. They have to collect their neighbors for unpaid labor, yet they are firmly aware that many of their neighbors are in difficult economic situations. That is why more and more of the unit leaders are quitting,” he said.

Though the watch unit leaders are not paid, they can subsidize their income because they get exclusive control of communal toilets and can sell accumulated feces to cooperative farms to be used as fertilizer, sources said.

Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.