North Korean shock brigade workers face horrific conditions at Samjiyon site

Kim Jong Un during a visit to the Samjiyon construction site in early April
Kim Jong Un during a visit to the Samjiyon construction site in early April. Image: Rodong Sinmun

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the Samjiyon construction site earlier this month in his first known visit to the area since the breakdown in US-North Korean talks in February. Kim expressed satisfaction with the progress of the construction, but workers on the site worked 20-hour days in preparation for his visit, local sources report.

“Despite the cold winter weather in the northern region of the country, the construction has progressed a great deal,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Kim saying on April 4. He encouraged construction workers at the site, saying “The construction will be completed on time if this [work] spirit is kept up.”

The February 16 Division leads the large-scale refurbishment project and is made up of Korean People’s Army (KPA) construction unit soldiers, work brigades recruited from across the country, and local Samjiyon residents. Kim had moved the construction completion date up to October 2020 from 2021, turning up the pressure to complete the project more quickly.

“Construction managers on the site conducted a ‘speed battle’ in preparation for Kim’s visit,” a source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK. “Shock brigades worked ceaselessly with only four hours of sleep each night.”

Some shock brigade members ran away from the site due to these conditions, and those that ran back home shared information about the progress of the construction, the source said.

Leaders of the February 16 Division surveyed the construction site and emphasized that all of the workers had to “band together” to “create a new piece of history,” the source reported. Shock brigade members set up tents near the construction site from late March for sleeping, and woke up at 4 AM before getting to bed at around 12 AM.

Samjiyon has temperatures that dip 20 degrees below zero during the winter, which means that the construction progresses at a slow pace during that season. Local officials nonetheless forced the shock brigades to work in terrible conditions just to prepare for Kim’s visit.

A former female member of a shock brigade who ran away from the construction site told a separate source in Ryanggang Province that “she would spend one hour preparing for bed after work ended at 12 AM. She only got three hours of sleep, the quality of which was incredibly poor due to the cold.”

Female members of shock brigades have to work at the same level as male members, and suffer from human rights abuse that include having to sleep in the same rooms as men. They also have to work without food if they missed group meals, and have to spend all night looking for lost equipment.

“The female members of shock brigades can’t wash their face, and they have to wear their dirty work clothes all the time. They are having such a hard time that sometimes they fall and hurt themselves,” she said.

“Members of shock brigades who run away from their jobs face up to two months in a forced labor camp. The conditions at the construction site are so bad, however, that some workers joke sarcastically that forced labor camp conditions are better.”

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