This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in North Korea are pushing people to donate money instead of contributing free labor to the latest “80-day battle” military-style mobilization scheme, making ordinary citizens suspect that the program’s goal from the beginning was to squeeze them for extra cash.
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.
RFA reported in mid-October that authorities had declared the start of a new “80-day battle,” to coincide with the Oct. 10th 75th anniversary of the 1945 foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party, but sources at that time told RFA’s Korean Service they had no idea what the objective was.
Now nearing the end of the battle period, sources tell RFA that there was never any work to do, so the residents are mobilized to sit around doing nothing or are shifted to menial jobs while authorities nag them to contribute money.
“The people’s dissatisfaction with the 80-day battle is deepening daily. Even if factory workers try to participate… they have no choice but to sit around because of lack of materials and electricity,” a resident of North Pyongan province, in the country’s northwest, told RFA recently.
“The authorities continually tell them to stop coming to the factory and just pay cash. The 80-day battle continues through the end of this month,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The source said that in the city of Sinuiju, which lies across the Sino-Korean border from Dandong, China, none of the factories have production materials.
“They are now being mobilized for road construction and rural manure production. So instead of going to the factory, many of the employees would rather pay cash so they can go back to their personal businesses,” the source said.
In the North Korean economy, nearly everyone must have a side job to make a living, because the government salary they earn from their assigned jobs is nowhere near enough to support themselves.
“At the Sinuiju Shoe Factory and the Sinuiju Cosmetics Factory, two of the city’s leading state-owned companies, they have nothing to make, so they started mobilizing their workers to things like manure production,” the source said.
“But the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] is demanding that the results of the 80-day-battle are calculated and presented in cash, so the officials of the companies have no choice but to hand over cash assignments to their employees,” said the source.
As the already terrible North Korean economy got worse in 2020 due to the closure of the border with China due to COVID-19 concerns, factories stopped operating for lack of materials. The two Sinuiju factories ran out of materials by summer, so managers began requiring employees to pay cash so they could make their monthly production quotas.
“They had to pay 400 yuan [U.S. $61] every month, eating into their money from their side-jobs. But when this 80-day battle began, they raised the amount by 50 percent to 600 yuan [$92],” the source said.
North Koreans usually prefer to conduct all commerce in foreign currency like the Chinese yuan or U.S. dollar, because the domestic won is unstable and hard to convert because of low demand for it.
The amount that the factory workers are being asked to pay per month during the battle period is enough to buy roughly 133 kilograms (293 pounds) of rice, according to the latest North Korean commodity prices listed on the website of Asia Press, a Japan-based organization that specializes in North Korean news.
Another source, a resident of North Hamgyong province in the country’s northeast, confirmed to RFA last week that citizens there were also grumbling about the pointlessness of the 80-day battle.
“These days, the residents are strongly reacting against the 80-day battle because authorities don’t suggest what kind of work they should do, only telling them to make cash offerings,” the second source said.
“The authorities have mandated that not only factory workers, but also housewives should be mobilized in the 80-day battle. Housewives who do not want to be mobilized for work in rural areas or road restoration work need to pay cash in amounts mandated by the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea,” said the second source.
The North Hamgyong resident said that more and more housewives are avoiding mobilization because the weather is getting colder, but the Women’s Union is demanding 50 yuan ($7.64) from each housewife to be declared exempt.
“As a result, housewives are complaining that the 80-day battle was merely an excuse to squeeze cash out of the people. After starting up the useless 80-day battle, they are squeezing the blood out of residents who are already having trouble right now.”