Starving North Koreans kidnap children of wealthy families for ransom
Starving North Koreans are kidnapping the children of wealthy families and demanding ransoms so they can afford to eat
- At least four child kidnappings have been reported in the country since May
- Where the suspects have been caught, some said hunger was their motivation
- North Korea, already crippled by sanctions, is suffering food, medicine and fuel shortages due in part to border closures intended to stop the spread of Covid-19
- Agricultural production has ground to a halt prompting fears of another famine
- Even portly ruler Kim Jong-un has appeared noticeably slimmer at recent events
Starving North Koreans are resorting to kidnapping the children of wealthy families and demanding ransoms so they can afford to eat.
At least four child kidnappings have been reported in recent weeks in the secretive country, which is struggling under international sanctions imposed on the regime of Kim Jong-un.
Shortages of food, medicines, fuel, and other everyday necessities have worsened since Pyongyang completely sealed its borders in January 2020 in a bid to prevent Covid-19 from entering the country.
The regime feared the country’s antiquated and poorly equipped healthcare system would collapse if coronavirus spread among the population.
Officially, there are no cases of coronavirus in the country, which shares a 1,352 km border with China that is frequently crossed by smugglers.
As such, experts consider it impossible for the virus not to have reached North Korea, despite being the first country in the world to close its borders as a coronavirus response.
Even Kim has hinted that his isolated homeland may be on the brink of catastrophe, likening the domestic situation to the devastating four-year famine in the mid-1990s that North Koreans refer to as the Arduous March.
As many as three million people are estimated to have died during this period of starvation brought about by chronic economic mismanagement, the collapse of the food distribution system and other communist nations halting aid supplies.
At least four child kidnappings have been reported in recent weeks in the secretive country [Stock image]
There have been recent reports of starvation in remote parts of the country as industry and agriculture have largely ground to a halt from a lack of fuel and spare parts.
There are also widespread reports of pilfering, even among the poorly-fed conscripts who make up the bulk of the country’s army, and civilians are also becoming more desperate.
Last month, a six-year-old girl disappeared while playing by a river outside her home in Songchon County, north of Pyongyang, Radio Free Asia reported.
‘She was kidnapped and taken hostage by a man in his thirties living in a faraway village from hers,’ a source in North Korea told the Washington, D.C. based outlet.
‘The kidnapper knew her family was well-off and even got her parents’ cell phone number before he took her to get ransom money.’
The source, who was not identified in order to protect their identity, said the kidnapper had locked the girl in a room in his house and demanded 500,000 won (less than £55) from her parents.
Police, however, were able to trace the phone used by the man and arrest him. The child was safely returned to her parents and the kidnapper is awaiting trial.
Another Radio Free Asia contact in the North reported a similar case involving a 10-year-old boy walking along a road in the central Yangdok County.
A man, who appeared to be in his forties, pulled up alongside the child on his motorcycle and offered him a lift home.
The boy later realised he was being abducted, but managed to escape and report the incident to police, who detained the man.
‘He confessed during the police investigation that he borrowed his friend’s motorcycle to copy a scene from a foreign movie in which actors took a hostage for ransom,’ the source said. ‘He said he had no food to eat and was suffering from hunger.’
The South Korea based Daily NK media outlet reported two further child kidnapping cases in Ryanggang Province, on North Korea’s northern border with China.
On May 12, a man collected a young boy from a kindergarten in the city of Hyesan, claiming to be the father of a six-year-old student. The boy’s mother later received a demand for nearly £600, which she reported to police.
Authorities were able to trace the man and the boy was released without injury about eight hours after being kidnapped.
As of June, police were still trying to identify the man based on descriptions from the kindergarten staff.
Later that same month, authorities arrested a man as he was about to board a train at Hyesan station with a five-year-old he had kidnapped with an aim to demanding a ransom.
Locals in the area said there is ‘growing anxiety’ among parents over the recent kidnappings and that parents worry the same thing could happen ‘to their own children at any time’ and might not be resolved as easily as the May cases.
The news of the desperate lengths North Koreans are going to to feed themselves comes amid rampant speculation surrounding the country’s leader’s apparent weight loss.
Kim, 37, has been photographed looking noticeably thinner in recent public appearances, prompting concerns over his health, which forced the government to ban gossip about his weight, labelling it a ‘reactionary act’.
In a bid to stifle the rumours, the apparatchik told state media that Kim is eating less ‘for the sake of the country’ as it grapples with food shortages, insisting that he is healthy.
The news of the desperate lengths North Koreans are going to to feed themselves comes amid rampant speculation surrounding the country’s leader’s apparent weight loss. Pictured: Kim (centre in white) in late August
In a bid to stifle the rumours, the apparatchik told state media that Kim is eating less ‘for the sake of the country’ as it grapples with food shortages, insisting that he is healthy. Pictured: Kim in 2018 [File photo]
However, there have been reports that Kim may have had a gastric band fitted in order to lose weight.
Others have claimed that the Covid-19 pandemic brought into sharp focus the need for the leader to shed some pounds.
State TV even spoke to someone who said his ’emaciated’ condition was ‘breaking our people’s hearts’ in a highly unusual broadcast around two months ago.
Experts believe this was a cynical attempt to garner sympathy for Kim, whose country is in the throes of an economic crisis precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic and a poor harvest.
Known to be a heavy drinker and smoker, Kim has long been obese, with his weight appearing to increase steadily in recent years.
His large frame is similar to that of his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the country’s founding father who enjoyed a cult-like following which continues long after his death.
North Korea watchers have long speculated that Kim Jong-un could be deliberately cultivating an overweight appearance in order to more closely resemble his grandfather.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, pointed out it was unlikely Kim’s recent weight loss was a symptom of acute ill health, as he had attended several public events this month.
‘No one can really know why he lost weight,’ he told AFP. ‘What’s clear — from the KCTV footage — is the regime wants the world to think that its people love and care for their leader, to a point where they’d cry over his thinner appearance.’
Pictured: Kim Jong Un’s watch strap shown in North Korean state propaganda in June appeared to confirm his weight loss, when compared with photos from December 2020 and March 2021, which show his watch strap was fastened more loosely to accommodate his thicker wrists. Photos from June showed more of the watch strap showing after the buckle
‘The most likely reason they would mention his declining weight in this way would, in my opinion, be related to ongoing COVID-19-related border measures,’ said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of the Seoul-based Korea Risk Group.
‘Regardless of the motivation for Kim’s rapid weight loss, it seems there is propaganda value in showing that even the leader of North Korea is enduring the same food shortages that are hitting the country at the current time.’
The regime may have intended from the beginning to emphasise the fact that Kim is working hard for the people at a time of widespread hardship, or its messaging may have been an unintended consequence of Kim’s inevitable appearance, Green said.
‘What matters is that the North Korean regime will have received word from its many, many, many informants that Kim’s condition was a talking point among ordinary people,’ he said.
‘From there it is a simple matter to respond by designing a propaganda strategy to use the existing public discussion to the regime’s advantage.’
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