North Korean families burdened by government financial demands

Workers at a power stationin Kosong as reported by KCTV December 8. Image: KCTV

Many North Koreans experienced a difficult 2018 paying monthly electricity and water bills along with other costs incurred through their workplaces and organizations. North Korea’s constitution states that as a society without taxes, all wealth goes toward welfare improvements for workers. The reality, however, is very different.

The monthly electricity and water bills handed down each month (which range from around 200 – 280 North Korean won, depending on family size) are not a major financial burden to most North Koreans. What is burdensome, however, are the tasks residents must complete through their workplaces and organizations involving foreign currency and commodity-related quotas.

North Koreans are involved in Party-related organizations between the ages of 9 and 70 and must complete these tasks unconditionally.

“The major construction projects undertaken by the government recently have increased labor demands on ordinary North Koreans,” said a Ryanggang Province-based source on December 31. “However, this year contribution is not mandatory; the government doesn’t force the issue as much as it did in the past.”

When asked to contribute to construction projects like the Samjiyon modernization project or power plant construction, those with some economic flexibility may instead contribute money or materials to receive better evaluations from the organizations they are affiliated with. Regular North Koreans just try to pay the minimum to avoid getting in trouble.

There is consequently less need for inminban (people’s unit, a type of neighborhood watch) leaders to visit households in the middle of the night if tasks have not been completed due to difficult financial circumstances.

“Last year, elementary and middle school students were required to collect three rabbit skins, 3 kg of waste paper and 2 kg of waste rubber each,” said a South Pyongan Province-based source on December 29. Rabbit skins go for 2,500 to 3,000 KPW each, while waste paper goes for 2,000 to 3,000 KPW per kilogram. Waste rubber goes for 1,000 won per kilogram. All in all, the students can earn about 18,000 to 20,000 KPW each.

Students now only need to collect 1 or 2 rabbit skins and no longer need to collect 5 kg of waste metal. High school students, however, are required to collect 4 rabbit skins, 5 kg of waste paper and 3 kg of waste rubber.

There are differences in how much university students need to collect depending on their school, but they are nonetheless required to participate in “labor practice sessions” during their vacation periods. If they fail to receive a certificate confirming their participation in these sessions, they must undertake 10 days of labor.

“Most workers pay 5,000 to 8,000 KPW to avoid labor when they take off work to do their own (private) business activities. University students also pay a similar price,” said the South Pyongan Province-based source.

“Most companies take out 8,300 KPW from the wages of employees who cannot make it to work because of family business. The most they can receive is 10,000 KPW but most employees pay around 5,000 KPW. Those with private businesses on the side generally believe that there’s no reason to go to work [so they just pay instead].”

This year, residents are expected to avoid “shock troop” or “storm trooper”  teams put together by each workplace in droves. Samjiyon County, which is where most shock worker teams are sent, has suffered from extreme cold since September last year and reaches temperatures of minus 30 in the depths of winter. North Korea’s government places a priority on providing winter clothes and gloves to shock worker teams, which means that residents don’t need to provide as many construction materials as in the past.

“Socialist Women’s Union of Korea (SWUS) members contribute more than regular workers,” said a separate source in Ryanggang Province.

“This is to encourage them to participate in construction and repair projects and prevent them from focusing on their own private business activities in the markets.”

A schedule for social labor and ideological training is provided to the SWUS members each month.

If one SWUS member fails to participate in the various social mobilizations that occur, the union is forced to pay 300,000 KPW each year. Those regions of North Korea where people profit handsomely off of private business activities are sometimes required to pay even more than that.

“Party members also have to collect gold or pick pine mushrooms to contribute to the ‘foreign currency loyalty fund’,” said the second Ryanggang Province-based source. “This means they contribute around 450,000 KPW each year, and elderly North Koreans band together to pick medicinal plants or mountain produce to sell to the government.”

Ultimately, in the case of four-person families where the family head is a Party member conducting private business activities, the family head will pay 450,000 KPW just for foreign currency-related tasks, the wife will pay 300,000 KPW to avoid having to participate in social labor, and the two kids will contribute 100,000 to 200,000 KPW each year to complete their own tasks. This amounts to the family contributing 1 million KPW a year to the government.

When this amount is compared to the 4,000 to 5,000 KPW received by the heads of families with four family members, it is clear that North Korean families are being financially overburdened by their government.