Since its founding, the North Korean government has employed political and economic surveillance activities at the local level called inminban (literally, “people’s groups”). This far-reaching system is embedded in several aspects of daily economic life and political education and now contends with new local networks and the rise of market culture in North Korea. Despite these changes, the government has adapted the structure to maintain its relevance and effectiveness. Within this system, the inminban leaders and their ties with their neighbors play a strong role in whether and how surveillance and punishment unfold.
A Surveillance System Embedded in Neighborhood Life
An inminban is a multipurpose local group whose activities range from practical community matters to ideology and political education. Every North Korean must belong to their local inminban, which includes thirty to forty households organized by geographical area. The neighborhood groups exist across the entire country, from cities to rural areas. The inminban system was formed as part of the same order of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) that created social cooperative groups during the 1946 land reform efforts. (Interestingly, the North Korean state adapted the inminban system from the Japanese colonial neighborhood administrative structure, or aegukban, designed to extract labor and natural resources for the empire’s war effort.)
A resident loyal to the regime (measured via the state’s official political classification system, songbun) serves as the organizational head for each inminban. The leader of the group organizes and monitors neighborhood activities, and is almost always an unemployed woman who is settled in her home life and has time to keep up with the myriad tasks required to stay abreast of the activities of the state, community and individual neighbors. In addition, the leader acts as a key “node” in the state-society network. Her job requires maintaining relationships with local residents and the Ministry of Social Security (MSS) agent to whom she reports the activities of the residents.
Perhaps the most important role of the leader is her relationship with the MSS agent. Though in principle, the local People’s Committee branch oversees the inminban leader, in practice, the local security agents monitor and manage her work. The leaders visit the local security office twice daily: once for a morning debriefing and instructions, and again in the evening to report the range of the day’s events, including suspicious activity of their neighbors. The MSS reportedly further employs about five or six secret neighbor-inspectors within each inminban who report back to the local office. These members secretly and systematically root out their neighbors’ suspicious behavior, including private meetings, unsanctioned travel or overnight stays (even among relatives), political statements, media consumption, the use of foreign currency and even the household finances of all residents—incomes, assets and spending habits.
While the surveillance function of the inminban may be its most striking feature, the system serves essential “quotidian” neighborhood functions by overseeing many practical community concerns. For example, in the spirit of communal work, inminban members provide local services like public sanitation, including garbage collection, waste removal and other janitorial tasks. The leaders also keep track of any overnight visitors from outside the county, including relatives, and can regulate food ration cards.
In economic life, the inminban leaders coordinate at-home agricultural and manufactured goods production. When the country has needed production that surpassed field and factory outputs, the North Korean state calls upon homemakers without permanent jobs to turn their homes into miniature factories. The leader organizes and monitors household-level output. In this sense, the inminban serves as a labor mobilization system for North Koreans outside the shop floor.
The inminban also help the local Women’s Union organize compulsory political meetings; these can include lectures, self-criticism, public criticism of their neighbors or collective study of the works of Kim Il Sung. Technically, the inminban do not take on the political education role, leaving that to the Women’s Union. However, as Andrei Lankov points out, the two organizations’ overlapping networks within each neighborhood make it difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. By extension, it’s difficult to exclude the public education duty from inminban responsibilities.
Variations and New Networks
The security system structure as a whole—from the MSS (formerly the State Security Department) at the top to inminban at the neighborhood level—has remained largely the same from Kim Jong Il’s to Kim Jong Un’s leadership. However, North Korean migrant testimony has suggested some recent variations in the role of the inminban and inminban leaders. The anecdotal nature of this information does not permit definitive claims about the discrepancies between the model and reality, but some patterns coming out of the testimony suggest two apparent variations from the groups’ historical role: differences between Pyongyang and the provincial neighborhoods and how the inminban actors deal with marketization.
Reportedly, inminban practices vary regionally—consistent with other social institutions in North Korea like political class (songbun), market oversight and public service provision. The Pyongyang leaders possess greater influence and power than their provincial or rural counterparts, and their accusations can lead to harsher punishments for deviant residents. The inminban leaders in Pyongyang also receive higher payment (70 won a month with some benefits, as of 2011) than those in the provinces (30 won in Hamhung, for example).
During the Great Famine in the mid-1990s, the inminban system seemed to weaken and even break down in many locations, just as other state and social institutions during this period. North Korean migrant reports produce varied pictures of the inminban leader’s roles under Kim Jong Un, but taken together, they may show how the groups’ leaders have adapted their position between state and society.
One significant change is the rise of markets over the past 20-odd years. Citizens can now use currency earned from market activities to bribe local leaders, including the inminban leader and MSS officers, to turn a blind eye to crimes against the state. As a result, some of the leaders take a different approach to their duty, using their position to warn residents about spot-checks from authorities. Some reports suggest that the inminban’s role in everyday control has weakened as new social networks have emerged.
Markets have built a competing person-to-person network that runs parallel to local and state surveillance networks. These networks, while they can include the inminban leader, also build trust outside state-sanctioned organizations. However, it would be premature to overstate the role of these social networks as anything but something that coexists, as opposed to counteracts, the neighbor surveillance system.
There are other reports, however, that the system has recovered many of its earlier surveillance functions, playing an essential part in helping the MSS root out problem behavior, particularly when the state puts pressure for more crackdowns. For example, one interesting report suggests that the role of inminban (at least outside Pyongyang, which has typically looked down on the position) has gained authority and status. No longer an obligatory role, the job is now hotly contested and sought after in some neighborhoods.
The Resiliency of the System
The North Korean state has traditionally used the inminban’s local reach in daily social, political and economic life to organize, monitor and discipline North Koreans, and this system is amplified by the friends and family network. Bureaucratic and policing realities, therefore, make the inminban a hoop North Koreans need to jump through. Even if the public must bribe their local inminban leader for necessary paperwork or to look the other way, the local leader remains a key node in the system of state surveillance. The extent of this surveillance and punishment meted out are contingent on the leaders’ decisions and relationships with neighbors. As such, inminban leaders remain relevant precisely because of their crucial position between neighborhood and state security—and because of the state’s demonstrated capacity to co-opt other social, technological and economic trends over the past decade.
Ken E. Gause, Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State (Washington, DC: The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012), accessed November 26, 2020, https://www.hrnk.org/uploads/pdfs/HRNK_Ken-Gause_Translation_5_29_13.pdf.
Antonio Fiori and Sunhyuk Kim, “Jasmine Does Not Bloom in Pyongyang: The Persistent Non-transition in North Korea,” Pacific Focus 29, no. 1 (2014): 44-67.
Andrei Lankov and Kwak In-ok, “The Decline of the North Korean Surveillance State,” North Korean Review 7, no. 2 (Fall 2011): 11.