North Korea has begun sending citizens to labor camps for skipping out on their low-salary government-assigned jobs to try to make a living elsewhere in an economy that has gone from bad to worse under the coronavirus pandemic, sources in the country told RFA
The double squeeze of international nuclear sanctions and the closure of the border and suspension of trade with China at the beginning of the pandemic in Jan. 2020 has devastated the North Korean economy.
Commerce has dried up, factories lay idle for a lack of raw materials and food prices have jumped sharply over the past year and a half as shortages mount.
Though all North Korean men must, in principle, report to government-assigned jobs every day, the salaries they earn are not enough to live on or support a family.
Sources confirmed to RFA that it is becoming increasingly common for workers to leave their homes and jobs to move about the country like migrants, looking for any job they can find.
“It is because going to work or leading a working life is not important at all for those who don't have rice to eat right now or can't make an everyday living,” a resident of the eastern coastal province of South Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service Aug. 12.
“These days, more and more residents are selling their houses and moving to a remote place or wandering around the country because it is difficult for them to make a living in the face of rising food prices,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The crackdown on absentee workers began at the beginning of August, according to the source.
“They’ve been cracking down on absentees by ruthlessly sending them to the disciplinary labor center, probably on internal orders from above that outline such punishment,” the source said.
“The leaders of factory and company workers, and their organizations are looking for those who stopped coming to work for no reason, or those who stop coming to organizational meetings, to ask them to return,” said the source.
Investigators are visiting the missing workers’ homes, talking to family members and casual acquaintances to find out where they are, according to the source.
“Each company used to have to report employee attendance to the local police office every day, but now they must report it twice a day, in the morning and the afternoon,” said the source.
The crackdown is causing people to return to work in factories they have not set foot in for several months.
“Once the investigation for the crackdown is over for a day or two, they stop coming again,” the source said.
“They are openly complaining about the party, saying that they are only strengthening the crackdown rather than providing relief measures even when people are starving to death.”
A neighborhood watch unit leader in nearby North Hamgyong province confirmed to RFA that authorities there are cracking down on the unemployed, those not living in their official residences, social security beneficiaries who skip neighborhood watch unit meetings, and students who are not regularly attending classes.
“When I look back on my experience as a neighborhood watch unit leader, it's been a long time since I received an order to identify and report social security beneficiaries and even students who miss school for a long time,” the second source said.
“Even though the police department or the local police office already knows who is unemployed, who isn’t living in their residence and who is receiving social security, they ordered the local probate office to double check,” said the second source.
The source said that it was more difficult for the authorities to control the lives of male workers.
“Unlike women, who are strictly controlled by the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea, all the social security beneficiaries are men, and… control over them is very loose,” the second source said. Authorities are also having trouble keeping tabs on students, he added.
“The coronavirus outbreak has made earning a livelihood extremely difficult, and many residents are recalling the Arduous March they experienced in the mid 1990s,” said the second source, referring to the 1994-1998 North Korean famine that killed millions, or as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimated in a recent report that North Korea would be short about 860,000 tons of food this year, about two months of normal demand.
RFA reported in April that North Korean authorities were warning residents to prepare for economic difficulties as bad as the Arduous March.
RFA also reported in May that a machinery factory in the country’s northwestern border city of Sinuiju had been sending out agents to track down workers skipped out on their factory jobs to work in the more lucrative fisheries industry.
Reported by Changgyu Ahn for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jinha Shin. Edited by Joongsok Oh. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.