Labor Conscription in High Gear Ahead of North Korean Ruling Party Anniversary

Minor violations result in forced labor amid race to finish public projects.

North Korean workers are seen from the window of a train as they work on a construction site along the railway heading from Pyongyang to North Pyongan province in a file photo.

With only two months to go before North Korea celebrates the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, authorities in North Hamgyong province are punishing misdemeanors with labor duty as they race to complete unfinished development projects, according to sources inside the country.

Several projects—including Orangchon Power Station No. 3 and the modernization of the provincial capital Chongjin—were to be finished before Oct. 10 celebrations marking the founding of the party in 1945, but overambitious development has left construction sites undermanned, the sources told RFA’s Korean Service.

“There are tons of construction projects that are supposed to be finished before Oct. 10, but the workforce is drastically insufficient,” one resident of North Hamgyong said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“In order to supplement it, provincial party authorities are implementing all kinds of methods to put residents in fetters.”

In April, the source said, authorities deployed “security details run by laborers” throughout the province to press the unemployed into a “Labor-Training Corps” with units assigned to work at the Orangchon Power Station No. 3 construction site for anywhere between 10 days to seven months.

However, the move failed to supply an adequate number of laborers, and in June the North Hamgyong Workers’ Party committee issued an order increasing its control over the province’s judicial authority, youth unions, and residents for the purpose of shoring up flagging construction projects, the source said.

Another source from North Hamgyong told RFA that the order had given authorities in the province broad powers to conscript residents into labor units.

“Recently, there have been many strange laws that different people interpret in different ways,” the source said.

“When people violate them even just a bit, they are dragged off to the Labor-Training Corps and are forced to work.”

For example, the source said, the provincial People’s Security Service and State Police Department in Chongjin implemented a new traffic law early last month giving authorities the right to arrest people who ride bicycles without bells—particularly those who do not keep to the right side of the road.

Additionally, each State Police Department branch in North Hamgyong has created its own “identification method,” and is arresting people who do not possess corresponding IDs, residents from different areas who lack the correct pass, and wholesale merchants traveling in the province for business, he said.

The source said the provincial Youth Union-affiliated Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and “security details run by laborers” are also forcing adolescents with dyed hair, wearing “revealing clothes,” and even “people with wrinkled pants” into the Labor-Training Corps.

“Residents who were caught by the security guards are dragged to construction sites,” the source said.

“How can authorities be permitted to recklessly arrest people off the streets in order to supply a labor force? These kinds of acts—arresting people who don’t ride on the right side of the road and those with wrinkled pants—can be likened to a kind of highway robbery [by the authorities].”

Forced participation

In April, sources in North Hamgyong told RFA that authorities were using arbitrary tactics to recruit unpaid labor ahead of the Workers’ Party anniversary, targeting those who fail to wear pins of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and young men who wear skinny jeans.

One source said that patrol teams who nab senior citizens write reports about their infractions and make them stand on the street for hours, while another told RFA that the teams had rounded up more than 1,000 people in a single day in Chongjin.

North Koreans are often forced to participate in projects deemed necessary for the good of the country or to attend multiple ceremonies and lectures in the lead up to celebrations marking regime anniversaries or the birthdays of the country’s leaders.

Also in April, North Koreans forced to attend multiple ceremonies for the 103rd birthday of regime founder Kim Il Sung told RFA that the mobilization has sapped them of energy that was already in short supply from mandatory participation in construction projects.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Soo Min Jo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.