SEOUL – Before fleeing authoritarian North Korea in 2009, Kang Mi-Jin was regularly mobilized by the state for military-like productivity campaigns that were a source of both pride and pain. She was happy to be chosen to give a speech pledging loyalty to the ruling Kim family; less so when a tunneling construction project left her with a head injury.
Now living in rival South Korea, she has watched with deep interest the news of North Korea's 80-day productivity campaign that began last month.
“When they pushed us to work so hard, I wonder if they should have also paid us something,” Kang, 52, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “North Korean people have gotten used to providing such (free labor) for so long. They know they have nothing to gain by raising an issue with that.”
North Korea occasionally stages such all-out national campaigns, which the state media call “battles.” They are meant to more firmly unite citizens around the Kim dynasty, press them to work harder and report bigger production numbers ahead of major political events. The current campaign is aimed at greeting a ruling party congress set for January, the first of its kind in four years, with “fiery enthusiasm and brilliant achievements,” according to North Korea’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper.
There's widespread outside doubt that short-term campaigns of this sort can address the fundamental economic problems facing the impoverished country. But North Korean leaders are seen as needing these campaigns to cement their grip on power in times of economic trouble or tensions with the outside world.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un faces his share of trouble: crippling U.S.-led economic sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic and damage from devastating typhoons and summer floods. In August, in a highly unusual admission of policy failure, North Korea’s ruling Workers Party said the economy had “not improved in the face of the sustaining severe internal and external situations” and that development goals have been “seriously delayed.” Kim said January’s congress would determine new objectives for the next five years.
“North Korean authorities want their people to strain their nerves by maintaining a state of tension,” said analyst Yang Un-chul at the private Sejong Institute near Seoul. “North Korea is staging (this campaign) as it doesn’t have any other available option. But I wonder what changes this campaign could bring about.”
Under the current “80-day battle,” North Koreans are required to work extra hours to fulfill or exceed newly set quotas in all areas, including farming, coal mining, typhoon rehabilitation efforts and anti-coronavirus campaigns.