North Korea Mobilizes Women to Solve Construction Labor Shortage

Pressed to deliver 10,000 houses by year’s end, authorities drag women away from their familial responsibilities to work at night.
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North Korea Mobilizes Women to Solve Construction Labor Shortage Locals view the rendered plans of a neighborhood during a ground excavation project for the construction of 10,000 homes in the Songsin and Songhwa areas of Sadong District, Pyongyang, North Korea on Thursday, March 25, 2021.

Labor shortages in North Korea have forced authorities to start mobilizing women to complete leader Kim Jong Un’s ambitious plan to build 10,000 houses in the capital Pyongyang by year’s end, sources in the city told RFA.

Pyongyang is North Korea’s largest city with a population of about 3 million. Though it is home to the most privileged members of society, the capital suffers from a severe housing shortage. At the eighth congress of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party in January, Kim promised to alleviate the shortage with 50,000 new houses by the end of 2025, including 10,000 in 2021.

Construction began almost immediately after the announcement, with organizers utilizing the military to provide special brigades of laborers called storm troopers.  

But even though the storm troopers work long, grueling hours, there simply aren’t enough of them to complete the gargantuan building task. So authorities have had to look for untapped sources of labor to fill the ranks of more storm trooper brigades if they hope to finish by the end of December.

Though referred to as housewives in colloquial speech, married women in North Korea have become increasingly economically important to their households as primary breadwinners. Because nobody can survive on official government salaries earned by men at their official jobs, it falls to their wives to run family businesses to support the household.

Mobilizing women for construction places undue burden on their families.

“Recently a night-work storm trooper brigade consisting of only housewives was sent to the construction site in Pyongyang,” a Pyongyang construction official told RFA’s Korean Service April 6.

“This is because there is not enough manpower at the construction site to fulfill the order of the Central Party to complete the 10,000 houses in Pyongyang this year,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The source said that Pyongyang is no stranger to ambitious construction projects. During the reigns of Kim Jong Un’s s grandfather Kim Il Sung and father Kim Jong Il, the city completed several housing development projects on the city's famous Kwangbok, Tongil, Pyomyung and Mirae Scientists Streets.

“But it is still the reality of today’s Pyongyang that most of the ordinary citizens suffer from the housing shortage,” said the source.

Because of the shortage, it is normal for many adult Pyongyangers to live with their spouses, parents and siblings in small apartments, exceeding maximum occupancies.

“Kim Jong Un attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of 10,000 houses in Pyongyang and ordered the project complete by the end of the year. But because there’s a shortage of manpower… they organized the housewives and sent them to work at the construction sites,” said the source.

“The working hours for the nighttime housewife storm troopers are set from 8 p.m. to midnight, and these women are being overwhelmed by excessive night labor, where they have to do things like hauling dirt on stretchers,” said the source.

Another source, also from Pyongyang, told RFA on April 5 that neighborhood watch units in every Pyongyang district have been tapped to provide a meal support system for construction crews, but soon authorities began calling them in to provide labor.

“The Highest Dignity declared at the Eight Party Congress that Pyongyang would build 50,000 houses by 2025. The 10,000-house quota was designated as a national target for the year, so the authorities are hassling even the women in the watch units now,” the second source said, using an honorific term to refer to Kim Jong Un.

“The meal support system is mandatory in each district. They each take turns to prepare food for the storm troopers once per week,” said the second source.

The country guarantees three meals a day for storm troopers who must work seven days a week. The requirement for each district to provide meals is also a burden on household finances.

“It’s shocking that they force the residents to include meats like chicken and pork for the lunchboxes when residents themselves hardly ever eat meat. The residents complain that it is irresponsible of authorities to push the city to build 10,000 houses, especially when it is so difficult to make a living during the coronavirus pandemic,” said the second source.

“Most Pyongyang citizens know that building 10,000 houses is nothing more than an attempt by Kim Jong Un to show off his achievements rather than to solve the capital’s housing problem. They say the authorities, who are even mobilizing housewives away from their responsibilities of providing for their families, and further burdening them to provide meals, should know who exactly they are doing this project for.”

Construction managers are foregoing safety standards due to the pressure of making their 10,000-house quota.

RFA reported last week that about 20 storm troopers died due to an electrical fire in their on-site workers’ barracks. Because the storm troopers are overworked, even the one assigned to night watch at the time of the fire was asleep, allowing the fire to consume the whole building.

Reported by Jeong Yon Park for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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