This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea calls them “volunteers” who willingly toil for free in coal mines and on farms as an expression of their love for the country and its leader.
But in reality the young people – mostly from poor families or those who grew up as orphans – are forced to do the grueling work to help shore up an economy battered by the pandemic and international sanctions for the country’s nuclear program.
“The truth is that the authorities are forcing them,” said a resident of Hoeryong in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong on condition of anonymity for fear of being punished. “There is no young person who would willingly volunteer to go to such a place.”
And rich kids or those with political connections can get out of the hard labor, sources in North Korea told Radio Free Asia.
“The children of powerful and wealthy families have a way out. But children of powerless workers, and also orphans are sent to coal mines and rural areas,” a resident of Hamhung in the eastern province of South Hamgyong said on condition of anonymity.
The practice is not new. North Korea routinely forces citizens to provide free manual labor for government projects, farm work and industry, and lionizes them as volunteers sacrificing themselves for the country.
But over the past two years, the government has sent young workers to the mines and farms around seven or eight times. Estimates on numbers are virtually impossible to obtain, but they likely number in the thousands, sources say.
The young dread seeing their names on so-called volunteer lists, the Hoeryong resident said.
“The Central Committee urges the province, and the province urges the city, and the city urges each factory and company to submit a new list of volunteers,” the source said.
Enterprise officials select workers who have no power to resist, who have no connections to officials or other powerful figures, he said.
“Everyone knows that the mines and rural farms are the most difficult jobs. And people know that it is a place that everyone hates to go to, and once you go, you can’t get out,” he said.
Many of the graduates from local schools for orphans were “volunteered” over the past two years, the Hamhung source said.
“Most of the 70 or 80 orphan students who graduated this year and last year were placed in work groups bound for those difficult areas,” the source from Hamhung said, adding that this month more than 100 young people from all over the province were sent to work in a power station, a livestock farm, and a goat ranch.
“They say these young people volunteered but, in fact, they were forcibly sent away,” he said.
Last April, representatives from the Socialist Patriotic Youth League, the country’s main youth organization modeled after the Soviet-era Komsomol, traveled to every school, factory, and enterprise to force the young workers to sign a petition stating that they volunteered to be sent to work anywhere the party needs them, according to the source.
“Who could refuse to sign in a situation like this?” the source said. “Occasionally, when signers refuse to go to a coal mine or other hard labor, the authorities retort with questions like, ‘Didn’t you already sign the volunteer petition?’ or ‘Are you against the will of the party?’”