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North Koreans scoff as government mobilizes them for ‘80-day battle’

A photo released by KCNA news agency on March 12, 2013, shows North Korea leader Kim Jong Un visiting the Wolnae-do Defence Detachment on the western front line. (KCNA/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT/TNS)
October 25, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Koreans are grumbling at the latest “80-day battle” military-style mobilization scheme, with residents saying the campaign of forced labor and has few clear goals beyond solidifying loyalty and devotion to the state, sources in the country told RFA.

North Korea, which uses military phrases to describe public projects that often require forced unpaid labor, typically taps the public to toil on communal farms or to work in essential industries when the country faces shortages of food or raw materials.

But sources told RFA’s Korean Service that authorities had already used the 75th anniversary of the 1945 founding of North Korea’s ruling party on Oct. 10 as an excuse to mobilize the people, and unlike previous such initiatives, the 80-day battle has no obvious purpose.

“As soon as the anniversary was over, the Central Committee pushed us into this 80-day battle,” a resident of North Hamgyong province, in the country’s northeast on the border with China and Russia, told RFA on Oct. 15.

“Provincial Party Committees held meetings for each factory and social organization and presented the goals for the battle as proposed by the Central Party,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

According to the source every government official, party member and worker is required to participate to fulfill their obligations of loyalty, responsibility and dedication.

“Most party members and workers say they hate the idea. In the past, there have been many of these kinds of battles, like the 100-day battle, the 150-day battle and the 200-day battle, but how did these make the lives of the people any better?”

the source said, referring to previous similar campaigns that were aimed at boosting the economy.

“Whenever the party suggests it’s time for a battle, the residents have to mobilize for various menial tasks, but they can buy their way out by giving money to the state. Factories and companies are not able to operate right now because of lack of electricity and materials, so I am not sure how they expect us to follow the 80-day battle plan,” the source said.

The source said mobilization imposes hardships on already struggling citizens, most of whom require a side hustle in addition to their official jobs in order to make ends meet. If they are forced to work for the state over the next 80 days, they cannot make money for themselves.

“This is just a means of control to keep our minds from wandering… It’s also to force us to work to fix roads and railroads damaged by natural disasters like the typhoons,” said the source, referring to the three typhoons that slammed into North Korea over a period of 10 days in August and September.

A resident in neighboring Ryanggang province told RFA at the same day that residents there had no idea what the purpose of the battle was.

“Even the speaker at the resident meeting was unable to explain in detail what the goal of this 80-day battle is. Most of the people who attended the meeting have a bleak outlook on the whole thing,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“In the meantime, they have been unveiling all these super bombastic propaganda slogans, but the lives of the people aren’t improving and are in fact getting worse.

If they could stop and think about those of us who are suffering in the aftermath of the natural disasters and the ongoing coronavirus crisis, they would know they shouldn’t put this 80-day battle on us, especially since there’s no specific purpose and no foreseeable effect,” the second source said.

Another Ryanggang resident told RFA Monday that because of the battle, the local market is now only open for three hours in the morning instead of the typical four or five hours in the afternoon. The change will likely lower revenues for residents that do business in the local market.

Meanwhile, the military is also making moves to boost its public image during the battle. A military source in North Hamgyong told RFA on Oct. 14 that the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces stressed military discipline as one of the initiative’s goals at a plenary meeting.

“Each unit presented their phased goal to improve the relationship between commanding officer and soldier, as well as the civilian-military relationship,” said the source.

“Higher-level military units are also sending guidance personnel to their lower level units as a measure to prevent beatings, desertion and violations of discipline that would reflect badly on the image of the People’s Army to those outside the unit,” said the military source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

Another member of the military in North Pyongan province in the country’s northwest confirmed that the military there was also focused on improving discipline.

“But the soldiers are cold on the idea. They openly complain that all of the discipline violations are a result of poor military living conditions, and the authorities are doing nothing to deal with the root cause, a shortage of supplies. Instead they are just pestering the soldiers.”

In addition to the special battles that are usually named by numbers of days, the government each year mobilizes people for agricultural battles in the spring and autumn to plant, maintain and harvest crops.