North Korea Investigates Youth Who Avoid Hard Labor Mobilization Drives

Hundreds of young people are forced to “volunteer” for work in coal mines and farms.
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North Korea Investigates Youth Who Avoid Hard Labor Mobilization Drives North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves as he attends a photo session with participants during Youth Day celebrations, in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this image supplied by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on August 31, 2021.

North Korea has launched an investigation into youths from privileged families who avoid mass mobilization campaigns that send thousands of young people to “volunteer” for hard labor in coal mines and rural farms, sources in the country told RFA.

North Korea, which routinely forces citizens to provide free manual labor for government projects, farm work and industry -- labels the laborers as “volunteers” who willingly toil as an expression of their love for the country and its leaders.

Free labor is necessary for the cash-strapped government of a country with serious economic problems resulting from a prolonged suspension of trade with China due to the coronavirus epidemic and years of U.S. and UN economic sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

But citizens who have connections can get out of the unpaid labor drives.

When the adult offspring of high-ranking government officials failed to show up for work duty in North Pyongan province, central party’s organization and guidance department sent agents to investigate, a resident of the northwestern region told RFA.

Sources said the investigation applied only to local officials of the provincial level or below.

“Authorities began an investigation into anti-socialist tendencies in the families of local officials… here in Sinuiju since the day after Youth Day [Aug. 28],” a resident of North Pyongan told RFA’s Korean Service Sept. 1.

According to the source, in early August North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the country’s youth to volunteer for dangerous and difficult work in places like coal mines and rural farms.

“But it was reported to the central committee that only ordinary people without powerful backgrounds were forced by the authorities to volunteer, while none of the children of high-ranking officials volunteered,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely. 

“Despite the party’s appeal to young people to take the lead and become young heroes by building a strong socialist state, even as the country is boxed-in by U.S. economic sanctions, the fact that the children of the officials didn’t respond to the call is seen as a serious failure as they deliberately ignored party policies by taking advantage of their position,” said the source.

The authorities are now treating their investigation into the privileged youth as a fight against anti-socialism, according to the source, paying particular attention to any anti-socialist tendencies they uncover.

Another source, a resident of South Pyongan province, north of the capital Pyongyang, confirmed to RFA that authorities there were investigating the same issue.

“Hundreds of young people forcibly selected by the party and the Youth League organization have been sent to Sunchon Coal Mine and rural farms in South Pyongan province since the beginning of August … but there is no child of high-ranking officials among them,” the second source said.

RFA reported in late August that the Youth League in North Hamgyong selected 140 young people to provide free labor in coal mines and rural farms ahead of Youth Day.

Those that were selected were opposed to being sent to work under the program, for which youth from wealthy and well-connected families were not selected triggering anger among the residents.

North Korea’s Youth League organization includes all people aged 17 to 35, including factory workers, high-school and college students, and other young people not serving in the military.

North Korean state media reported Aug. 30 that Kim Jong Un met with young people who volunteered and took a photo with them.

RFA has reported on other North Korean forced labor schemes this year including mobilizing women for construction of a wall along the 880-mile Sino-Korean border, forcing students to haul gravel for school building construction and maintenance projects, and sending soldiers off to toil in mines immediately upon discharge.

Reported by Hyemin Son and Myung Chul Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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