Work cards issued to strengthen monitoring of farm mobilizations in North Korea

North Koreans planting rice
North Koreans planting rice. Image: Daily NK file photo

The North Korean authorities have begun issuing “work cards” to confirm whether individual residents are participating in mandatory mobilizations for farm work.

“These work cards are new this year and are about the size of your palm. If you don’t have one, you can’t go anywhere,” a Pyongyang-based source told Daily NK. “Work unit managers at farms stamp the cards to confirm that each individual has worked on the farm as required.”

A former resident of Pyongyang told Daily NK that North Korean officials had previously used “work value cards” to allocate mobilization quotas within each inminban (neighborhood watch unit). Each inminban head would be responsible for 300 of these cards, requiring them to calculate both the number of laborers needed and the number of days required to fulfill their quotas.

In the past, inminban heads were only required to fulfill their quotas in any way they could. This meant that some residents were able to buy their way out of the mobilizations through bribes. However, the new system of “work unit cards” brings heightened surveillance over individual participation in the mobilizations, preventing residents from bribing their way out of working in the fields, the defector said.

“Anyone who gets their card stamped by their unit manager can freely go about their business the next day,” the source said. “If you’re stopped by officials on the street you have to show them your card. If you don’t have it or if the card doesn’t have a stamp, you’ll be sent back to the fields.”

North Koreans are forced to participate in a wide range of farm mobilizations throughout the year, beginning with the “manure battle” at the beginning of the year followed by other “battles” involving planting and weeding. The country has suffered from intense droughts this year and residents are also being mobilized into so-called “drought battles.”

However, most residents try their best to avoid being mobilized into these “battles.” Many North Koreans have to grow their own food to survive, which means that an increasing number of them are avoiding what the government considers their duty.

In the past, when the public distribution system (PDS) was operational, North Koreans would more readily participate in these battles as the state used their sense of patriotism to encourage participation. The collapse of the PDS and the reality that most people make their own living through the local markets means that the state is experiencing more difficulties in mobilizing its population.

The work cards enable the authorities to check attendance during mobilizations and restrict the movements of those who fail to participate. “[The system] is cruelly forcing people to work,” said the source.

“It’s unclear whether the system is nationwide or not, but that’s likely given that it has been implemented where I live,” said the source. However, the system has likely not been implemented in the larger cities like Pyongyang, as “there’s little chance people in Pyongyang would be working on farms,” noted the source.

The work cards have even been issued to housewives, rather than just the employees of farms and factories. “The authorities are even making housewives work in the fields. They are overstretched, working not only to grow food in their own plots of land and working at the markets, but also in the state farms as well,” the source said.

The North Korean authorities ban local markets from opening until 5 PM during farm mobilization periods, leading to many complaints, according to a separate source in Pyongyang.

“Housewives need to farm their own plots of land in the morning to sell their goods in the local markets, but they’re now forced to work on state farms during that time. They are really annoyed by this. But if they don’t work in the fields, they aren’t allowed to conduct their own business,” she said.

The regime has announced that the target quota for grains this year is seven million tons, but “farms only produce around four million tons,” she continued.

“This year I’m not sure if they can even produce two million tons, so I don’t expect people to be too enthused about working in the fields.”