North Korean Workers Ditch Factories for Market Incomes

nk-workers-dec-2012.jpg North Korean workers walk home after finishing a shift at a nearby factory in Sinuiju, Dec. 15, 2012.

Poorly paid workers in neglected state-run, non-military factories in rural North Korea are bribing managers to take leave of their official work units in pursuit of lucrative jobs in local marketplaces to feed their families, according to sources in the country.

The workers are unable to make ends meet on their meager monthly salaries, a government official from South Pyongan province, where some of the factories are situated, told RFA’s Korean Service.

The official from Nampo city said they have been forced to pay off their management so that they can leave to work at private markets where they can make significantly more money.

The workers are mainly from factories hit by power shortages or lack raw materials, reflecting production inefficiencies despite a push for economic reforms by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his late father Kim Jong Il, sources say.

“The rural industrial factories and hourly wage enterprises don’t have enough electricity or raw materials [to produce what is required by the state], so they have mobilized workers to participate in the August 3rd Production Campaign,” the official said, referring to a policy introduced on Aug. 3, 1984 by late leader Kim Jong Il.

The Campaign allows some factory workers to engage in private commerce outside their workplace to support the factories with the money they have earned doing business at local markets.

The employee families give around 80,000 won (U.S. $10) per month to the factory as a form of bribe so that they can embark on private commerce, the official said.

“With the money, the factory maintains its facilities and covers the manager’s living expenses,” meaning that they are living off of the money the employee earns, he added.

The source did not provide details about which industries were most likely to be affected by the bribery issue or figures to indicate around how many workers were involved in such practices.

Meanwhile, the wages of managers at rural factories—many of which cannot operate because they lack power and resources—have been frozen at around 4,000 won (U.S. $0.50) a month, the Nampo source said.

“Managers are finding it hard to live only on their salary, so they make ends meet by taking bribes,” he said, suggesting that the practice of bribery is a side effect of the August 3rd Production Campaign.

The Nampo official said that this relationship between worker and manager was a direct result of the central government’s order that factories take on an independent profit system, without providing any guidance or investigating how sustainable the policy would be.

Military focus

Meanwhile, as tensions remain on the Korean peninsula and the North devotes its paltry resources to its largely outdated military technology, reports suggest that workers at munitions factories and other production facilities for the armed forces have received dramatic monthly salary increases.

A source living along North Pyongan province’s border with China told RFA that workers at many of the military factories had been given raises of more than 100 times what they made last year.

“Workers at the munitions factories making missiles and shells, including No. 26 (Ganggye Tractor) Factory and No. 76 Factory, have received between 300,000-400,000 won (U.S. $37-50) [per month],” the source said.

North Korean rights groups and defectors have expressed frustration over Pyongyang’s testing of nuclear devices which they say underscores a diversion of scarce funds towards weapons programs instead of coping with chronic food shortages.

Following a third nuclear test in February last year, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper cited intelligence authorities as estimating that the North may have spent between U.S. $2.8-$3.2 billion on its nuclear development program, including expenses for transport and logistics—enough to feed its starving people for three years.

Reported by Young Jung for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jina Lee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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