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Unpaid Farm Work: Wealthy People in North Korea Bribe their Way Out of Mandatory Farming Mobilization

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Farming Mobilization
Mandatory Farming Mobilization: North Korean farm workers tend to a field on the outskirts of the capital Pyongyang, July 12, 2016. RFA
  • North Korea’s annual campaign to mobilize its population to do unpaid farm work has prompted wealthy citizens to bribe doctors
  • Authorities of the regime of leader Kim Jong Un require that male and female citizens mobilize to provide additional farming manpower
  • Rich citizens might be obtaining false medical papers to skip the mass mobilization
North Korea, June 6, 2017: North Korea’s annual campaign to mobilize its population to do unpaid farm work has prompted wealthy citizens to bribe doctors to issue false medical evaluations that exempt them from the compulsory labor, sources inside the country said.

Authorities of the regime of leader Kim Jong Un require that male and female citizens mobilize to provide additional farming manpower during the spring planting season and in early summer when rice is grown.

In response, wealthy North Koreans have been paying bribes to doctors at hospitals to issue phony diagnoses of medical conditions that will get them out of performing hard manual labor in the fields, sources said.

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An incident involving a drunken, wealthy North Korean who was returning to the capital Pyongyang by train during the mobilization period after visiting relatives in China, tipped off authorities that rich citizens might be obtaining false medical papers to skip the mass mobilization, said a source in North Hamgyong province which borders China.

The authorities arrested the man, who is said to be a merchant, when he displayed violent behavior. They discovered that he had a valid travel document which usually cannot be obtained during mass mobilizations, said the source who declined to give his name.

“Only rich people can get it by paying a bribe to officials,” he said.

The man also had been diagnosed as a spinal stenosis patient in need of long-term treatment for the condition in which the spinal canal narrows causing back pain and other nerve-related problems, he said.

“[Yet], he got drunk and got violent,” the source said.

“[The man] is known to be exempt from the farming mobilization by bribing doctors for a fake diagnosis,” he said.

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The authorities who arrested the train passenger alerted the Central Committee, the leadership body of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, which then ordered inspections of the People’s Hospitals, the source said.

The People’s Hospital in the Chongam district of Chongjin, capital of North Hamgyong province and the country’s third-largest city, is being inspected by professionals from the city’s Science and Education Department, who believe that doctors have been issuing false diagnoses in return for bribes so wealthy North Koreans have a legitimate excuse to get out of the mandatory farming mobilization, he said.

‘Powerless people suffer’

A source in North Pyongan province said that ordinary people who cannot afford to pay bribes and must provide the forced labor resent that wealthy and powerful people are getting medical exemptions.

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“Powerless people are suffering physically from farming, while some rich people are lounging around,” said the source who requested anonymity.

The amount needed to bribe a doctor to issue a false medical diagnosis valid for a month is about 200 Chinese yuan (U.S. $30), he said.

“Very wealthy North Koreans pay more to obtain a diagnosis that is valid for several months to a few years and become ‘long-term patients,’” the source said.

Though inspectors conduct probes of People’s Hospitals for false diagnoses every year, it has become a mere formality, the source said.

“If the false diagnostic statements are discovered, doctors can easily get away with it by bribing inspectors, so it is only the powerless people who are forced to participate in what is essentially slave labor during farming season.”

Other North Koreans are responding to the drive with satire.

“North Korean residents are taunting the Central Committee’s propaganda about farming mobilization that requires the participation of every individual if they have the energy to hold a spoon,” said the source in North Hamgyong province.

“They are ridiculing the propaganda by raising the possibility of avoiding the farming mobilization if they use chopsticks instead of spoons,” he said.

Mandatory mass mobilization campaigns, or “battles” as the regime likes to call them, are routine in North Korea, where the authorities use them to mobilize manpower for various projects and measure citizens’ loyalty to the state and Korean Workers’ Party.

Earlier this year, North Korean authorities imposed limits on the operating hours of local markets nationwide to encourage residents to go the fields and collect manure to use as fertilizer in light of a shortage of chemical fertilizer.

The move caused great discontent among locals, many of whom shop for food and other necessities during the day. (RFA)

Next Story

North Korea Bans Imports of Chinese Pork on Fears of African Swine Fever Epidemic

“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source

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chinese pork, african swine fever
The import ban seems to have had no effect on the price of pork, making the source believe that Chinese pork is still getting in. Wikimedia Commons

North Korean authorities have banned imports of Chinese pork as an African swine fever (ASF) epidemic rages north of the Yalu River border between the two countries.

According to the latest update from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, China has seen 138 ASF outbreaks since August 2018 and more than a million pigs have been culled since the initial outbreak in Liaoning province, which borders North Korea.

North Korea’s ministry of agriculture confirmed the country’s first ASF outbreak in Chagang province on May 23 and South Korea’s ministry of unification has proposed discussions on how the two Koreas can work together to stop the further spread of the disease.

But RFA sources in North Korea say Chinese pork is still being sold in local markets. “A few days ago I heard from a customs official that North Korea has completely blocked all imports of pork and beef from China to prevent the spread of African swine fever,” said a source from North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on June 2.

chinese pork, african swine fever
Pigs stand in a barn at a pig farm in Jiangjiaqiao village in northern China’s Hebei province on May 8, 2019. Pork lovers worldwide are wincing at prices that have jumped by up to 40 percent as China’s struggle to stamp out African swine fever in its vast pig herds sends shockwaves through global meat markets. RFA

“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source. “I heard that in some areas, including Pyongyang and Sinuiju, they are trying to control pork sales, but no action has been taken yet in North Hamgyong,” said the source. The source said that the ban is quite rare, especially since diseases among livestock are common during this part of the year.

“There have been infectious swine diseases in the past, but they never banned the import of pork from China. At this time of year, we are usually hit with infectious swine diseases and many pigs are culled, but none of the residents bury the dead pigs,” the source said. The import ban seems to have had no effect on the price of pork, making the source believe that Chinese pork is still getting in.

“The price of pork is between 14 and 15 Chinese Yuan (slightly more than $2) per kilogram, which is the same as before the authorities banned Chinese pork. Even though customs authorities are blocking pork imports from China, there is so much pork being smuggled in,” the source said. Another source, also from North Hamgyong, said the ban is strange, given that North Korean customs officials generally follow the lead of their Chinese counterparts.

“On the first of the month, pork that was to be brought in from China was quarantined at North Korean customs and sent back. It is unusual for our customs office to block this pork shipment because it didn’t have any problem going through Chinese customs,” said the second source.

“That [particular] pork shipment was to be brought in by a Chinese citizen of Korean descent who is a restaurant owner in Rason,” the second source said. “He thought there would be no problem going through customs because he regularly brings in pork from China. But the Wonjong customs office did not let it pass through on orders from the Central Committee,” the second source said.

chinese pork, african swine fever
“North Koreans prefer Chinese pork to domestically produced pork, because it has thicker layers of meat and fat,” said the source. Wikimedia Commons

The second source said the restaurant owner was surprised his shipment was held back. “He has had no problem bringing in pork from China for several years now. Even when swine fever [started] spreading in China, he kept bringing it in. It’s the first time he has been stopped and he’s totally bewildered,” the second source said.

The second source said that the price of pork remains stable despite the ban, and no cases of ASF have been reported in Rason. Even so, residents have become fearful of the disease.

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“[They think] African swine fever is highly contagious and has a fatality rate of 100%, but Chinese pork is still being sold at the local markets and no restrictions have been announced,” said the second source. According to a USDA fact sheet, ASF is deadly only to domestic and feral pigs and does not affect humans. People can, however, spread the virus by coming in contact with the bodily fluids of infected livestock.

According to a source in South Pyongan province, North Korea has not culled pigs in any of its state-run farms where an ASF outbreak has occurred. The pigs instead were supplied to sausage factories at low cost. This has caused a flood of sausages to enter the market, cutting the price of sausage in half. (RFA)

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.