North Koreans Head to the Hills to Avoid Forced Labor, Contributions to Regime

Security agents are cracking down on those who leave their registered residences to prevent others from doing the same.

North Korean workers ride in the back of a truck in Pyongyang in a file photo.

An increasing number of poor urban North Koreans are abandoning their homes and moving to remote mountains to avoid forced mass mobilizations and mandatory contributions to the regime of leader Kim Jong Un, sources inside the country said.

“There is an increasing number of people who have recently abandoned their homes and are living deep in the mountains,” a source from Chagang province, bordered by China to the north, told RFA on Sunday.

“They are poor people who don’t have seed money to start a business and who cannot financially support themselves,” said the source who requested anonymity. “They are running away from authorities’ interference [in their lives], forced mobilizations, and required offerings [to the state].”

North Korean authorities, who routinely monitor the movements and actions of the general public to ensure their loyalty to the regime, frequently mobilize urban residents to provide labor for public projects such as constructing buildings or monuments in honor of the country’s leaders.

Authorities have also conducted mass mobilizations in the run-ups to major meetings such as the annual ruling Workers' Party Congress where citizens around the country must perform forced labor by building new structures, sprucing up existing buildings in the capital Pyongyang, and producing additional goods and crops to cover the cost of the event.

Many resent the mass mobilizations because of the unpaid labor and goods they must contribute in a show of enthusiasm and support for the regime, and believe that some of the projects they contribute to are irrelevant to their own lives and well-being.

The reasons that some North Koreans are voluntarily leaving places where they are registered as residents are different from those that prompted migrations from cities more than 20 years ago when people headed to the mountains to try to escape from starvation during the country’s Great Famine (1994-8), which killed up to 3 million people, the source said.

“The mountains of Chagang province are deep and steep, so it's easy for people to hide and live there,” he said, adding that the terrain makes it difficult for security agents to find them.

People who are hiding in the deep mountains of Chagang are from all over the country,” the source said. “Siblings or families live together in thatched shelters and eke out a living by selling greens, medicinal herbs, and mushrooms.”

It is only when authorities discover that people who are registered at a specific address are not living there that they send local security agents to look for them, he said.

“Those who are caught are told to register their place of residence and join a local people’s unit so they can be monitored, though they try their best to avoid registration,” the source said.

Isolated from civilization

A source from North Hamgyong province near the border with China told RFA that local security agents have been cracking down on residents who live in areas along the mountains that run between Onsong and Kyongwon counties.

The people left their homes because of difficulties in their daily lives, and they refused to register their places of residency with authorities, said the source who declined to be named.

People who live in the deep mountains include infants, students, young couples, and elderly people with curved spines, he said.

“Though they don’t have enough food and they are isolated from civilization, they are free from mobilizations and the burden of [mandatory] offerings,” he said. “They live with no monitoring and no interference from the authorities, so the number of people who abandon their homes and live in the deep mountains will not decrease,” the source said.

If authorities left those who retreat to the mountains alone, more people would try to do the same, he said.

North Koreans who live in the hills can grow their own medicinal herbs and keep all the plants for themselves, he said.

“They don’t have to share them with the authorities, so people keep trying to live in the mountains, even though the conditions are not optimal,” the source said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.