Tue, Feb 19, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Patriotic brigades or slave camps?

North Korea’s ‘socialist utopia’ needs mass labor, and a growing market economy threatens that

By Hyonhee Shin  /  REUTERS, SEOUL

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects a construction site in Samjiyon County.

Photo: AFP

Last month, thousands of North Korean students traveled to Mount Paektu, a sacred mountain where the ruling family claims its roots and where leader Kim Jong Un is building a massive economic hub at the alpine town of Samjiyon.

It is one of the largest construction initiatives Kim has launched, part of his campaign for a “self-reliant economy” even as he seeks to convince US President Donald Trump to lift economic sanctions at their second summit later this month.

State media painted an inspiring picture of patriotic students braving harsh weather, eating frozen rice, and ignoring supervisors’ worries about their health in order to work harder on the huge building site.

Kim has visited Samjiyon, near the Chinese border, at least five times for inspections over the past year.

He envisages a “socialist utopia” with new apartments, hotels, a ski resort and commercial, cultural and medical facilities by late 2020, barely four years after Kim ordered modernization of the “sacred land of the revolution.”

North Korean defectors and human rights activists say such mass mobilizations amount to “slave labor” disguised as loyalty to Kim and the ruling Workers’ Party. Young workers get no pay, poor food and are forced to work more than 12 hours a day for up to 10 years in return for better chances to enter a university or join the all powerful Workers’ Party.

But as private markets boom and more people cherish financial stability above political standing, the regime has been struggling to recruit the young laborers in recent years, they say.

“Nobody would go there if not for a party membership or education, which helps you land a better job. But these days, you can make a lot more money from the markets,” said Cho Chung-hui, a defector and former laborer.

“Loyalty is the bedrock of the brigades but what do you expect from people who know the taste of money?”


Last year, after declaring his nuclear weapons program complete, Kim shifted his focus towards the economy, saying people’s well-being was a top priority.

Samjiyon is at the center of his new economic initiative, touted as what would be a “model of modern mountainous city to be the envy of the world,” alongside an ongoing project to create a tourist hotspot in the coastal city of Wonsan.

The labor units, called dolgyeokdae or youth brigades, were created by Kim’s late grandfather Kim Il Sung to build railways, roads, electricity networks and other infrastructure projects after the Korean peninsula was liberated from Japan’s 1910-45 occupation.

Open North Korea, a Seoul-based rights group, estimated the total brigade workforce at 400,000 as of 2016. A landmark 2014 UN report on North Korean human rights put it at between 20,000 and 100,000 per municipality, depending on its size.

“How did Kim rally manpower and resources for so many big construction program despite sanctions? It’s simple — whatever you need, suck it out of the people,” said Kwon Eun-kyoung, director of the group, who has interviewed more than 40 former brigade members.

North Korean state media has run a series of articles over the past month appealing for young people to dedicate their “boiling blood of youth” to renovate Samjiyon, while Kim has expressed his gratitude to those who sent construction materials and supplies.

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