North Korea’s economy has taken a hit as the country’s borders remain sealed during the Covid-19 pandemic. This week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expressed appreciation to the country’s youth for “volunteering” to do hard labor to compensate for “lagging behind” or to cleanse “cultural infiltration.”
The North Korean government’s use of “hard labor” justified by ideological demands is common. The demanded labor is used for projects that Kim Jong Un has deemed a priority, such as mining, farming, and construction. This allows North Korea to boost domestic production – even more relevant now that cross-border trade has almost stopped – while sending specific political messages to the people.
The new messaging follows Kim Jong Un’s order in April 2021 to crack down on “words, acts, hairstyle, and attire of young people” that the government considers unsavory, individualistic, and anti-socialist. Young people were directed to stop watching, reading, or listening to unsanctioned videos, broadcasts or texts; not mimic the speech, clothes, and hairstyles of South Korean television series characters; and re-embrace a life that shows loyalty to the North Korean leadership, carries on the “socialist system,” and follows the government’s propaganda and orders.
These so-called “volunteer” mobilizations of people to work in mines, farms, or construction sites involve backbreaking labor under extremely harsh and dangerous conditions for long periods of time with little or no pay. The North Korean government may say these are all “volunteer” projects, but the reality is very few people can turn down the request. Since punishment for crimes in North Korea is arbitrary, depending on a person’s record of loyalty, personal connections, and capacity to pay bribes, refusal to work as a “volunteer” can result in severe punishment, including torture and long imprisonment.
The government’s brutal practices violate fundamental principles of international labor law and human rights law. North Korea remains one of the very few countries that is not a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Kim Jong Un could better express his appreciation for the country’s youth by joining the ILO and ending rampant rights abuses.