Rural North Koreans mobilized as Pyongyang construction project falls behind schedule

Authorities in North Korea have ordered factories and businesses in rural provinces to send workers to the capital Pyongyang to work on an ambitious housing project that has fallen behind schedule, sources in the country told RFA.

Pyongyang, North Korea’s largest city with a population of about 3 million, suffers from a severe housing shortage. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised at the ruling Korean Workers’ Party congress in January to build 50,000 houses by the end of 2025, including 10,000 homes in 2021.

Construction began almost immediately after the announcement, with organizers utilizing the military to provide special brigades of laborers called storm troopers.

But the project needs even more labor to stay on schedule, so rural businesses are being forced to send some of their employees to the capital before the end of the year. The workers are reluctant to go out of fear they will be forced to work long hours in freezing temperatures.

“External construction on the 10,000 homes is already complete, but no matter how hard we try to convince them that they will only be working inside the buildings, no one wants to go to the Pyongyang construction site,” an official from a company in Hyesan, a city on the border with China, told RFA’s Korean Service Nov. 4.

“Our superiors have designated the number of workers to be mobilized in each factory according to its size and number of employees. Our company has 120 employees, so we had to send three workers to Pyongyang,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Workers who are mobilized for construction jobs typically spend months on site and can only return home to see their families once during their time away, the source said. Workers sent to Pyongyang, which is a controlled area, are not even afforded a single visit home, the source said.

“The 10,000 houses must be completed within the year, so if you are mobilized for the Pyongyang housing construction, you will have to work hard day and night, so who would want to go?” the source said. 

A factory in Puryong county in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong sent two out of its 70 workers to Pyongyang for the housing project, a factory official told RFA.

“Since no one wanted to volunteer, after long discussions, the employees decided to draw lots to decide who should be mobilized first,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“Since the Pyongyang residential construction project will continue for the next five years, the employees will take turns being mobilized every two months,” the second source said. 

Authorities punish factory and company officials who do not fill their mobilization quota, according to the second source.

“If we are desperate, we disguise a homeless person as a factory worker and send him to the storm troopers,” the second source said.

Under that arrangement the homeless person will receive raincoats, winter work clothes and underwear, and will be paid 30,000 won (U.S. $6) each month.

“Many residents feel that mobilization is like they are being dragged somewhere to go die, because they will be unable to eat properly in a place far away from home, and must work hard for several months on end.

“The high-ranking officials who have never had to send their children to the storm troopers will never be able to understand the feelings of the people.”

Financial support

Those who are not made to donate their labor to the project must instead financially support it, to the tune of 50,000 won ($10) per household, a resident of Hyesan’s surrounding Ryanggang province told RFA.

“Families who cannot afford to pay the support money must offer 5kg of pine nuts or 20kg of herbal medicines,” said the third source, who declined to be named.

Many citizens are already in survival mode due to the dire economic situation in the country. They resent that they have to pay for houses they will never live in, in a city they may never be allowed to visit, the source said.

The economy, which was under pressure because of international nuclear sanctions before the coronavirus pandemic hit, is now in shambles thanks in part to the suspension of trade between North Korea and China ordered to stop the spread of the deadly virus.

The suspension has led to higher food prices and shortages bad enough to prompt the government to warn its people to prepare for a situation worse than the 1994-1998 famine, which killed millions of North Koreans.

Even the police, who under normal circumstances can use their influence to extract bribes from the people, must pay into the project, an official in North Hamgyong told RFA.

“At the end of October the Ministry of Social Security sent an internal directive to each province to make each police officer send support money of $100 to $300 each,” said the fourth source.

“Officers in the traffic division were made to donate $300 per officer. They think that the way they can prepare such a high amount is to enforce stronger traffic crackdowns and collect more bribes, so the drivers here will have a hard time very soon.”

Mobilization for government projects is standard practice in North Korea. Most citizens are ordered to provide free labor on farms and infrastructure projects every year. Usually, they work on projects in their own communities and will eat some of the food they farm or use the roads they maintain and buildings they construct.

But only North Koreans with connections who are deemed the most loyal are bestowed with the right to live in Pyongyang, where they have access to better food, education and employment opportunities.

The rural workers forced to construct new homes in the capital may never visit Pyongyang again in their lifetimes.

Reported by Chang Gyu Ahn and Myung Chul Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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