Amid nationwide construction spree, North Korean factory workers pay for mobilization exemption

Construction at the Tanchon Power Station in June 2018. Image: Rodong Sinmun

As large construction projects in North Korea increase the demand for labor from the general public, factory workers subject to the mobilization draft are opting to pay for exemption. However, the prices involved preclude the country’s poorest and most vulnerable from such exemptions.

In his 2018 New Year’s Address, Kim Jong Un called on the country to “join efforts to complete the construction of the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area in the shortest period of time, push ahead with major construction projects including the renovation of Samjiyon County, the construction of the Tanchon Power Station and the second-stage waterway project of South Hwanghae Province, and channel steady efforts into the construction of houses.”

In North Korea, participation in “shock troop” or “stormtrooper” brigades is considered a substitute for active military duty. The brigades are divided into two types: regular brigades consisting of personnel diverted from the military; and irregular brigades made up of workers mobilized from nearby factories and enterprises. The majority of desertions [i.e. those returning back to their regular jobs] are occurring in the irregular brigades.

Reports from human rights groups and the US State Department reveal that these workers often receive little to no monetary compensation for their work, and are often malnourished.

“It used to be the case that you’d only be summoned once in a while from your workplace for a brigade mobilization, but for the past few years, the calls to work on these national construction projects have been occurring at least every six months. There is an increasing number of people who don’t want to participate and are paying for exemption or others to participate in their place,” a source in South Pyongan Province reported.

Educators, skilled workers, and transportation workers are exempt from the shock troop draft but anyone lacking such qualifications must instead make periodic payments to their workplace as part of the August 3 Movement (8.3) if they wish to avoid work and be exempt from the draft.

“Paying [so-called] 8.3 Money lets people do business outside their workplace to earn money, but it costs roughly 1.25 million KPW per month on average, or 15 million per year,” a separate source in South Pyongan Province said, adding that the fees vary depending on the workplace. Some individuals also manage to negotiate a longer grace period for payment or fee reductions.

“Still, paying 8.3 Money is the best option if you can afford it, since workplaces no longer distribute rations, the salary is nominal, and you can make so much more doing business on the outside, not to mention the shock troop exemption,” a source in North Pyongan Province said.

“But for those who can’t find a way, it’s pretty terrible.”

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Kang Mi Jin
Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.