North Korean students farm mobilization
North Korean students in a truck driving along the Sino-North Korean border. / Image: Kang Dong-wan, Professor, Dong-A University

North Korea’s rich and powerful are increasingly paying school teachers to exempt their children from mandatory farm mobilizations, and schools are using these funds to pay for the food eaten by other, less fortunate, students working in the fields, sources in North Korea have told Daily NK.

“The potato season (fall harvest) began in Samjiyon in mid-September,” a Ryanggang Province-based source told Daily NK on Monday. “Students from mainly poor families attending middle schools in Hyesan are now in Samjiyon helping out in the fields.” 

All North Korean students are required by the state to participate in the farm mobilization “battles,” or campaigns aimed at ramping up farm production. Daily NK has reported previously that middle school students are used to help harvest crops as diverse as opium resin and tobacco.

Despite the mandatory nature of the campaigns, Daily NK sources said that each year the number of students who are exempt from farm work seems to be increasing. 

“Middle school students have difficulty carrying around potatoes, which is more difficult than harvesting them,” another Ryanggang Province-based source said. “Parents are aware that their kids hate working the fields so they are actively finding ways for them to avoid working.”

About one in four students are exempt from participation thanks to payments made by their parents to teachers, Daily NK sources estimate. 

Classes in middle schools in Hyesan generally average around 40 students. The number of students working in the fields, however, is now only 30 students per class. Teachers use the money they receive from parents to buy food or purchase replacement labor so that their classes meet their assigned labor quotas. 

Labor quotas are carefully tracked by North Korean officials who manage these mobilization campaigns. If too few students show up on the fields, schools may come under investigation from the country’s educational authorities or a party committee member. 

“Teachers recommend that even students who have been exempted show up at the farms to go through the motions of work,” one of the sources told Daily NK. “They work for a short while and spend the rest of their time in student accommodations nearby the fields.” 

Teachers have been known to pay kkotjebi (homeless children) daily wages to achieve their quotas of workers in the fields. They reportedly pay the children a daily wage of RMB 3 (40 US cents) to harvest potatoes, and RMB 5 (70 US cents) for carrying potatoes from one place to another. 

Students in the fields feel it’s unfair they have to work because of their parent’s economic situation. Daily NK sources agreed that such grievances have the potential to expand beyond unhappiness toward their parents to feelings of injustice aimed at broader North Korean society. 

Regardless of the feelings of individual students in the fields, potato farms are reportedly rushing to finish the fall potato harvest before Samjiyon is hit with cold weather, which comes earlier than in other parts of the country.

*Translated by Violet Kim

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