North Korean Citizens in Yanggang Province Skip Out on Forced Labor Project

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North Koreans work on the railroad near Kumgangsan station in Kangwon Province
North Koreans work on the railroad near Kumgangsan station in Kangwon Province
Yonhap News

North Korean authorities are investigating a group of citizens in Yanggang province who defied mobilization orders, a common practice by local governments to make citizens donate labor to public projects.

The local Korean Workers’ Party committee slated the residents to clean up a stretch of railway on Sunday, but they didn’t appear because they were busy working on their own farms, sources say.

Following the no-show, the committee began investigations in an attempt to ascertain if any “rebellious elements” were among the citizens.

“Although the leaders of the local Inminban [neighborhood watch unit] informed each household, only a few residents came [to perform their duties] and most of the residents did not show up, so the project was canceled,” said a resident from the province’s Kimjongsuk county on Monday in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

The source said that the worksite was too far away and that the citizens would have lost an entire day of farming if they had participated in the project.

“The project’s working hours were from 5 to 7 a.m. but the project was about 10 ri (about 2.44 miles) away from where the residents live, so the people would have had to leave at 4 a.m. to participate in the project,” the source said.

“People are busy farming corn in their small fields so they have no time to spare for free labor,” said the source.

Once it was determined that not enough workers reported for duty, the project was cancelled and the investigation began.

“[The no-show] has been reported to the county’s party committee and they called in the head of the town office. They decided it’s a serious emergency situation so they called in a meeting that day. During the meeting they investigated each resident to hunt for rebellious elements who led the people not to participate in the mobilization. They also made the residents criticize themselves,” the source said.

Self-criticism, or saenghwal chonghwa, is a regular act by which the citizens report to the local inminban on any shortcoming they might have pertaining to loyalty to the state. During regularly scheduled saenghwal chonghwa sessons, citizens are also expected to be critical of each other and to collectively determine a plan to correct the shortcomings. But usually those who criticize each other decide in advance on how they will criticize each other to make the process as painless as possible for all involved.

After the emergency meeting, the residents were forced to clean up the railway in the dark, according to the source.

“[They worked] from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. with their hand-held flashlights. They ballasted tracks and cleaned up the area. It was laughable because the party’s high-ranking officials also were there to keep the residents from [publicly] complaining,” said the source.

A second source, from Hyesan city in Yanggang said that residents there are always mobilized whenever a North Korean leader is expected to tour the area.

The source noted that several culturally important sites are in the region. These include Samjiyon County, which is the site of a major state-sponsored construction project that according to an NK News article consists of more than 400 new buildings.

The region is also home to Miryeong, which is claimed by the regime to be the location of a secret military camp where Kim Jong Il was born while Kim Il Sung was engaged in guerrilla activities against the Japanese in the era of Japanese colonial rule.

Paektu mountain is also in the area. It is the tallest mountain on the Korean peninsula and a sacred location in Korean lore so significant that even South Korea’s national anthem contains lyrics that mention its name.

Between the three sites, the region is visited often by North Korean leaders throughout the year.

“For this reason, the central committee often orders the Yanggang Provincial government to be prepared for a [Kim Jong Un] welcoming ceremony on a moment’s notice,” the second source said.

“From the months before the [the arrival of Kim Jong Un] is expected, the residents of Hyesan get busy cleaning up the rail road and the surrounding areas. They don’t even have time to take care of their own business or farming so people complain a lot about it,” said the second source.

Kim Jong Un has visited much more often than his father or grandfather did, as Samjiyon is his pet project.

“As the number of [the leader's] visits to Yanggang Province increases, the number of forced labor projects for the residents increases. As it disrupts their livelihood, people are resentful of the government,” the second source said.

Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.





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