Youth Shock Brigade pushed to limit

As North Korea prepares for the 7th Party Congress, Kim Jong
Un has introduced and emphasized a concept dubbed “Mallima Speed” to urge
expediency to workers around the country. North Korea’s state-run
publication, Rodong Sinmun, recently ran an article about the construction of Ryomyong
(daybreak) Street, stressing the “will and determination” exhibited by the
shock brigade’s young men in their efforts.

However, the
poor work conditions at construction sites and likelihood of a fatal accident
befalling the mobilized workers are well known at home and abroad, with special concern placed on the young men in the so-called
“Youth Shock Brigade for Speed Construction.” 

According to defectors, the “Youth Shock Brigade for Speed
Construction [YSB]” works on sites and structures that have propaganda,
revolutionary, or historical significance. For a time, the unit produced masses
of socialist heroes and meritorious individuals. For this reason, young people
in the past were driven to sign up to work at the construction sites in order
to distinguish themselves, earn a letter of recommendation to go to university,
join the Korean Workers’ Party, or enter into the military. It was known as a
path to success.

The situation began to change dramatically after a famine
struck in the mid 1990s. From a lack of basic necessities and foodstuffs, the
number of residents who suffered from starvation and disease increased.
Residents were in no mood to do back breaking labor at construction sites with
insufficient equipment under such conditions. Thus, public opinion of the YSB
plummeted. Even a handsome bribe was insufficient to induce young residents to
join up.

In particular, safety standards are sorely lacking at the
sites where this works. As a result, there was no end to the number of
casualties from landslides and explosions. In addition, authorities give no
special provisions or treatment during the bitter cold, which has led to a
number of mobilized shock troopers getting frostbite on their hands and feet.

Mr. Park (pseudonym), a defector with experience working in
a Pyongyang branch of the YSB, told Daily NK, “During my time in the YSB, they
used to fill a large cement tank with buckwheat, unwashed cabbage, and
radishes. It was turned into a soup and preserved with rock salt. After the
wheat was boiled, it was whacked and stirred with a spade, causing the wheat to
swell up. We were rationed about two spoonfuls of it at a time.”

Mr. Park continued, “Necessities like toiletries and
uniforms were provided, but the fabric of the clothes was similar to woven
hemp. We also got underwear, but this was also made from the same inferior

Another defector spoke about his YSB experience on the condition
of anonymity, stating that the workers slept 100 to a room, which had only one
bathroom. “The ceiling was so low,” he said, ”you could brush your head up
against it.”

The two YSB veterans both attested to the fact that with
such inadequate provisions, they were forced to steal in order to survive.
 “If you didn’t steal you couldn’t survive. So we all resorted to
stealing,” he explained, recounting a time when he once followed some superiors
in his unit to the Pyongyang Textile Factory and stole from the chili pepper
field there. They were subsequently caught in the act and beaten severely.

He continued, “Because of these difficult conditions, the
YSB became known to residents as a pack of outrageous kids. As soon as they saw
our uniforms, they were on guard. From a different angle, there were a high
amount of homeless children, known as kkotjebi, in our ranks, so we were also
regarded with pity.”

In response to the regime’s “70-Day Battle” to prepare for
the Party Congress, the YSB has been laboring day and night on the verge of
total exhaustion in order to construct the “Supreme Leader’s achievements.” This has already led to a surge in worksite fatalities, but the regime has not
slowed down or provided due compensation to the victims’ families.

Mr. Park said, “Even when someone dies on site, the project
has to continue.” The other defector corroborated, saying, “There is no
atmosphere of condolence or sympathy on the worksite after someone dies. 

He added, “When I was part of the YSB shock, I didn’t have
access to proper medical treatment. If you say you’re sick, they definitely do
not send you to the hospital. They take a cursory glance at the problem and
say, ‘Here, take an aspirin or some Chinese painkillers,’ but they never give
you more than two pills.”