The Samjiyon County modernization project is considered one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s key interests and is the country’s biggest state-run project. To ensure that the project is completed by the year 2020, the stated deadline, the North Korean authorities are mobilizing a large number of “shock troops.”
Shock troops are essentially workers who are not paid wages, and are required to work at construction sites managed by the state. Shock troop units must live at the construction sites until the project is finished or their terms end.
The shock troop units are generally made up of young and middle-aged people in their 20s to 40s. Complaints have recently been rising among workers because the authorities appear to only be mobilizing those working at factories that have halted production activities.
“The authorities at the Musan mine are currently selecting members for a construction shock troop unit to work at construction sites in Samjiyon and the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Zone,” said North Hamgyong Province-based source on September 14.
“Workers affiliated with work units that are currently manufacturing products are exempted. Mobilization is only occurring for those in factories where production has stopped.”
“Mining and transport operations are at normal levels, but there are many factories producing daily necessities that have stopped production […] Workers at factories that have stopped production are being mobilized into shock troop units or into the agricultural fields,” the source added.
“Workers that have money can bribe the authorities to get out of mobilization, while the poor are mobilized for all sorts of projects.”
Whether a factory worker is mobilized into a shock troop unit depends on how long they have worked at the factory or enterprise. Generally, the most recent hires are mobilized into shock troop units, although bribes can offer a solution for all.
As construction projects ramp up across the country spurred on by orders from Kim Jong Un, there has been an increase in tension due to the mandatory mobilization of shock troop units.
A separate source in North Hamgyong Province described the difficulties experienced by a Musan mine worker named Ahn Myung Ho (alias), who has been mobilized several times into shock troop units.
Ahn was part of a work unit at the Musan mine that had stopped operations. He was mobilized to work at a construction site in Samjiyon County for a year, beginning in July 2017, and recently returned to the Musan mine.
After returning to the mine, he was planning to find ways to address the poor financial situation his family was in. He borrowed money from several lenders and created a plan to start a business with his wife.
After returning back to the mine, however, he was mobilized into another shock troop unit just a week later.
Ahn had voluntarily applied to join a shock troop unit the first time due to his family’s poor financial situation, despite there being others who could take his place. He was nonetheless mobilized into a unit when an order was handed down that called on all workers not involved in production to join a shock troop unit.
Those who paid bribes to the officials were exempted from mobilization. Ahn, however, was forced to spend a year working in a shock troop unit in Samjiyon from late September of last year.
“There are many who are able to pay their way out of working in shock troop units or other forms of mobilization in enterprises and social organizations throughout the country,” said a source in Ryanggang Province.
“Poor people also frequently receive money from those who can afford it in exchange for taking their place in shock troop units.”
He also noted that the supply of food to shock troop units has improved, so poor workers have relatively fewer complaints.
“Those workers who have been mobilized in construction projects in Samjiyon say that the supply of food has improved a great deal compared to the past,” he said. “The state is trying to boost morale by giving them pork to eat after they have finished a difficult job.”