Students in North Korea are being forced to pick bilberries for export to China and face harsh fines if they refuse, sources say.
University and high school students in North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong, Chagang, and Yanggang provinces in the northern part of the country have been mobilized to harvest the berries from the mountains during their summer break.
“Now is the season for bilberries, so North Korea is forcing students to pick them. Students who don’t participate in the work have to pay a fine of 50,000 won,” a source in North Hamgyong province said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The amount is nearly 10 times the highest salaries paid to government workers, whose official average monthly wage is about 2,000 to 6,000 won (U.S. $0.70 to $2 based on market rates).
The berries are used to make wine and jelly that are known as the regional specialty of Mount Paektu, North Korea’s sacred mountain.
Authorities are selling the berries to traders from China, who have bought large volumes of them at 35 yuan per kilogram (about U.S. $2.50 per pound) since last year.
A source in Yanggang province said authorities were conducting the bilberry campaign to raise money for materials for local schools.
The same source said that students had faced accidents while out in the mountains picking the berries, which grow at altitudes of above 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) in the northern part of the country.
“There are more students than bilberries on the mountain these days. There are continuous accidents with students picking bilberries,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Juhyeon Park. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.