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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)

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North Korean Authorities Ramping Up The Levels of Strictness at Weekly Self-Criticism Sessions

North Korea experts have suggested that the purpose of these sessions is to instill fear into the public, making them easier for authorities to control.

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Pyongyang citizens in a file photo. RFA

Following the breakdown of talks at the most recent U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, North Korean authorities are reportedly ramping up the levels of strictness at weekly life appraisal sessions.

Known as saenghwal chonghwa, the sessions are self-criticism meetings in which every citizen must individually confess their shortcomings on the political loyalty front.

The confessor must then hear additional criticism from other citizens, then form an action plan to compensate for those shortcomings.

Since the failed late-February Hanoi Summit, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could not come to an agreement on denuclearization for sanctions removal, authorities in the repressive country are becoming increasingly rigid during these weekly meetings.

“These days, there is an air of tension at life appraisal sessions that can’t even be compared with how they were previously. Attendees can’t even cough out loud,” said a Pyongyang resident who recently traveled to China in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

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“North Korean citizens are becoming concerned about their future because [they think] this could mean that international sanctions will be even heavier.” Pixabay
The resident explained how the level of seriousness during saenghwal chonghwa ebbs and flows depending on how optimistic the regime feels on the current social climate.

“When there’s a positive social mood, [the sessions] were just perfunctory, but it’s not like that at all [right now],” said the source.

“[The sessions] usually take about an hour, but now it’s getting to be close to two hours,” the source said.

Simply going through the motions as usual is no longer enough, according to the source.

“If they are only moderately critical about themselves, or if their peers hold back, [the authorities] make them stand in front of everyone so that all in attendance can be more direct and more intensely criticize them,” the source said.

“It must feel just as miserable to give out such harsh criticism to colleagues and neighbors as it is to receive it,” said the source.

According to the source, the affair is normally planned out between attendees. Prior to the meetings they mutually agree on what to criticize each other about—usually trivial things.

“But it doesn’t work that way now. They have to harshly criticize each other. Now people are starting to make enemies even with their close neighbors during these life-appraisal sessions,” the source said.

North Korea experts have suggested that the purpose of these sessions is to instill fear into the public, making them easier for authorities to control.

In a recent report by the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, author Robert Collins detailed saenghwal chonghwa as one means by which the North Korean government uses the people to deny rights to each other, as a strategy of social control that extends even to the private lives of citizens.

A second source, from North Pyongan province, implied that being stricter at saenghwal chonghwa, is a means of diverting attention from the failed summit by keeping people on their toes.

Hanoi summit
Since the failed late-February Hanoi Summit, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could not come to an agreement on denuclearization for sanctions removal, authorities in the repressive country are becoming increasingly rigid during these weekly meetings. VOA

“As talk about the collapse [of the summit] is spreading, the authorities seem to be intentionally creating tension by being stricter,” the source said.

The source recalled other gossip-worthy events that authorities wanted to silence discussion about.

“Whenever there are huge issues [to talk about], such as the execution of Jang Song-thaek [Kim Jong Un’s uncle, who experts believe was a legitimate challenge to Kim’s power,] the authorities tried to cover the mouths and ears of the public through strict life-appraisal sessions,” the source said.

“[They] are really emphasizing self-reliance more often during the sessions these days,” said the source, adding, “North Korean citizens are becoming concerned about their future because [they think] this could mean that international sanctions will be even heavier.”

The practice of saenghwal chonghwa began in March 1962. Usually 10 to 15 people from the workplace or neighborhood attend the sessions to collectively determine ways for each individual to become better citizens.

Every Saturday a weekly appraisal session is held, with a monthly session on the month’s final Saturday. There are also quarterly and yearly appraisals. The sessions are facilitated by low-level local inminban(neighborhood watch units) and detailed records are kept.

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None are spared from self-criticism, as even elites are subject to the weekly sessions.

Thae Yong-ho, a high-profile defector who once served as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, described the sessions in his memoir as “the most fundamental principle of the North Korean slave state.” (RFA)