SEOUL (Reuters) – In January, thousands of North Korean students went to mount Paketa, a holy mountain where the ruling family claimed its roots, and when leader Kim Jong-un built a mass economic center in the Alpine city of Samjijon.
This is one of Kim's biggest building initiatives that is part of his campaign for an "independent economy," even when he seeks to convince US President Donald Trump to lift economic sanctions at the second summit this month.
State media outlined an inspiring picture of patriotic students who are afraid of harsh weather, eating frozen rice and neglecting the care of managers about their health to work on a huge construction site.
Kim visited Samjijon, near the Chinese border, at least ninety times for audits over the past year.
It involves a "socialist utopia" with new apartments, hotels, ski resorts, and commercial, cultural and medical facilities by the end of 2020, only four years after Kim ordered to modernize the "sacred land of the revolution."
North Korean defectors and human rights activists declare that such mass mobilization is equal to "slave labor" disguised as loyalty to Kim and the ruling party of workers. Young workers do not receive wages, poor food, and are forced to work more than 1
But when private markets are booming and more people value financial stability above political status, the regime is trying to recruit young workers in recent years, they say.
"No one would go there, if not party membership or education, which would help you better plant work. But these days you can earn a lot more money on the markets, "said Cho Chung-Hui, defector and former worker.
"Loyalty is the basis of brigades, but what do you expect from people who know the taste of money?"
"CULTURE OF BLOOD YOUNG"
Last year, after he announced his nuclear weapons program, Kim turned his attention to the economy, stating that the well-being of people was a top priority.
Samjiyon is at the center of its new economic initiative, which is "a model of a modern mountain city that envy the world," along with a permanent project to create a tourist access point in the coastal city of Wunsan. Here
labor units called dolgyeokdae or youth brigades were created by Kim's deceased Kim Il Sung for the construction of railways, roads, electricity networks and other infrastructure projects after the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japan's 1910-45 occupation.
Open North Korea, a human rights group in Seoul, estimated the total strength of the brigade at 400 thousand in 2016.
"How did Kim rally the labor force and resources for many major construction programs, despite sanctions? It's easy – all you need is to suck it out of people, "said Kwon Yong-gu, a group director who interviewed more than 40 former members of the brigade.
North Korean state-owned mass media conducted a series of articles last month, urging young people to devote their "boiling blood of youth" to the restoration of Samjijon, while Kim expressed his gratitude to those who sent building materials and materials.
Articles and photographs show the factories, seven people and individuals who pack winter jackets, instruments, shoes, blankets and cookies in boxes that will be delivered to Samghion.
The state provides a limited number of materials, including cement and iron rods, leaving the brigade to bring gravel and sand from the very banks of the rivers, said Cho and Kwon.
The 60-minute documentary on state television, broadcast 10 times from December, shows that young people carry stones in high snow and make a masonry on a high construction without any visible security devices.
Last month, the official newspaper Rodong Sinmun stated that thousands of students produced 100 meters of high gravel gravel, crushing the breed by nothing more than hand-held tools on the first day. He compared the feat with the efforts of ancestors who fought against the Japanese imperial forces during the Second World War.
"The weather was so cold that the rice looked like ice cubes, but we did not want to spend any expensive second heating. I thought of our anti-Japanese revolutionary martyrs while chewing on frozen rice," quoted in the article.
] Public media often exaggerate the promise of citizens towards leaders as part of their efforts to create an individual's cult around them.
But Choy, the defector, said that the reports were "far from reality", since most workers did not even get a security helmet, and conditions of the law These were so hostile that many escaped.
MONEY IN LOYALITY
Unskilled workers, together with the military, provide most of the construction work needed to carry out Kim's economic projects, but to strengthen the public's resistance to the mobilization of free labor and supply may cause trouble for Kim's ambitions to transform Samhion, say defectors and observers.
Cho said that the government offered him party membership and entry into college if he provided a three-year service to brigades. The salary eventually stretched out for eight years before he received the proposed remuneration in 1987.
Not all promises are saved. Li Oi-rii, 29, said that he had fled the brigade he had been serving for three years since he was 17 and came south in 2010 after he realized that he would never be allowed to join the party because of his history.
In addition, the violations of human rights of members of the brigade are unbridled, which prompted many to escape or injure themselves to be released, said Cho, who went south in 2011 and is now an economist in Seoul.
Today, those who have money freed themselves from the service, sending out stocks, paying someone else to pay their bids, or bribing team leaders to close their eyes, said Cho and Kwon.
Most new members of the labor force are from the poorest households and have a bad feeling about the system and its growing inequality, says Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Asia at Human Rights Watch.
"They will put forward propaganda statements about these projects and love for Kim Jong-un, which motivates people to work, but reality is the punishment that awaits those who refuse," said Robertson.
"As a rule, the poorest inhabitants of the area who have few contacts and can not afford to pay bribes – hence, they are the objects of attacks."
The North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to a comment request.
At the end of 2017, the US Department of State called the mass mobilization of forced labor one of the human rights violations that guaranteed the North Korean weapons program. She included seven people and three people in the list, including two construction agencies. The rise of markets and the growing public indignation for forced labor have undermined the quality of work in most brigades throughout the country, say defectors.
Kang Mi-Jin, a defector who regularly talks to North Koreans for the Daily NK website that runs an intruder, said that some construction work in Samjion was temporarily suspended last month due to security problems.
"It is impossible for North Korea to complete such a big project without these brigades, but there is no way in which they have all the necessary labor, so they are trying to mobilize more with the help of the state media," Cho said.
"But they will only continue to see more people escaping and more cracks in buildings. It's a reality. "
Report Gionhi Shin; Additional report by Michel Nichols in New York; Editing Lincoln's Day