North Koreans Perform Forced Labor to Prepare For Workers' Party Congress

north-korea-workers-party-congress-may3-2016.jpg North Korean military officers arrive for the Seventh Workers' Party Congress in Pyongyang, May 3, 2016.

North Korean citizens forced to perform labor in the run-up to the ruling Workers’ Party Congress that began Friday in Pyongyang are exhausted from the regime pushing them to show their enthusiasm for and commitment to it, sources inside the country said.

During the meeting—the first Workers’ Party Congress to be held in 36 years—national leader Kim Jong Un is expected to further consolidate his power and lay out his policies.

To prepare for the congress, the government in February rolled out a “70-day battle,” ordering citizens around the country to perform forced labor by building new structures and sprucing up existing buildings, sources said.

They also had to produce additional goods and crops to cover the cost of the congress, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“The central institution of the Seventh Workers’ Party Convention made citizens overwork by encouraging a high level of political enthusiasm and commitment to high performance to strive for better results,’” a source from North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service.

Despite weeks of toil on such projects, some structures that residents of his province worked on still appear unfinished, he said.

“Citizens are worn out from the excessive amount of work they have put into state building projects as well as forced mobilization and forced funding of them,” he said. “The citizens have been careless when it comes to doing the projects themselves.”

Meanwhile, a lack of resources necessary for production has caused about 90 percent of factories in the region to cease operating during the 70-day lead-up to the party congress, said another source form North Hamgyong province.

“There are countless numbers of factories that have stopped their operations because of the lack of materials, not just in North Hamgyong province but also in the entire nation,” he said. “Yet, the government is still making a fuss about opening the Seventh Workers’ Party Convention.”

‘Abusive rule’

HRW called on party leaders at the congress to address the rights abuses committed by the government, including the forced labor for the event.

“This ruling party congress is a rare event, but it’s made possible by the forced labor that untold thousands of North Koreans are subject to as part of everyday life under  Kim Jong Un’s abusive rule,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.

“Kim Jong Un talks a lot about improving the lives of North Koreans, but we’ll only know if he’s serious if he takes action to end human rights abuses,” he said.

“But I’m not holding  my breath waiting for that to happen,” Robertson said.

Hardly any details about the party congress have been issued publicly so far, except for reports that Kim Jong Un praised the country’s nuclear test in January and rocket launch of a satellite into space in February as a “great success” during a keynote speech.

It is believed that the rare party congress is being held now to shore up the regime’s power in light of harsh new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council in retaliation for its actions earlier this year.

When Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung presided over the last party congress in 1980, he announced that his son Kim Jong Il would succeed him and solidified the North Korean political philosophy of juche, or self-reliance.

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

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