A lifetime of mass mobilization in North Korea

Sunday 16th August, 2015

Image via KCTV and SBS.

Image via KCTV and SBS.

North Koreans anticipate various mass mobilization campaigns enforced by the government, which dominate their lives.

Currently in South Korea, candidates for by-elections are mobilizing party members to win more votes. The word “mobilization” is usually restricted to the professional political sphere. Campaign workers and party members are ‘mobilized’ in anticipation of upcoming elections, to promote support for each party’s representatives and rallies. As such, in South Korea, ‘mobilization’ is not a word of everyday life.

But the word is part of everyday vocabulary in North Korea, because political mobilization is a part and parcel of daily life. North Korean refugee Jang Soo-yong explained to us the differences between mobilization in North and South Korea in a recent interview.

In South Korea, party members are mobilized for presidential, National Assembly elections and political events. Mobilization is voluntary and there is no threat of use of force involved in the event of non-participation, and compensation is provided. In North Korea, the most common forms of mobilization are mass gatherings for political events, labour mobilization, and material collection. Participation is mandatory, and no compensation is given.

Mobilization for political events happens according to an annual calendar, and includes the dates of births and deaths in the Kim family, days such as New Year, holidays, Founding of the Party, and other anniversaries of events. Prior to these events, each People’s Unit (inminban – these correspond to inhabitants of each residential area or apartment block) must practice slogans and songs with other members of their Unit. After going through rehearsals, they are mobilized for the actual event by political committees.

Labour mobilization refers to the supply of human labour from the employees of each enterprise, residents of each People’s Unit and students of each school. For example, prior to anniversary days,  people are sent to clean Kim family statues and beautify its surroundings. At other times, they are sent to work at construction sites or warehouses. Other labour mobilization operations include regular farm labour, disaster relief during emergencies, and road renovations.

Finally, there is material mobilization. The most representative form of this is the earning of foreign currency in order to make “loyalty offerings” to the party, and supplying lunch boxes to soldiers to celebrate the Korean People’s Army. To support foreign currency earning operations, ordinary citizens may pick bracken during spring and mine gold during autumn, so that the Worker’s Party can export the goods to foreign nations.

When citizens are ordered to make and give lunch boxes to soldiers on the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army, different groups are designated to procure different types of menu, such as meat, eggs, etc.

Inequality and class differences exist even in mobilization. Those who can afford the appropriate bribes can buy their way out of labour mobilization and material mobilization. Those who cannot afford it must participate in mobilization, taking time away from their own means of livelihood. However, due to the particular political structure of North Korean society, no one is allowed to be exempt from political mobilization.

A North Korean citizen’s year is a year of constant mass mobilizations. Many grumble at these mobilizations because one cannot earn anything during this time. But the Workers’ Party rigorously monitors and enforces participation, using it as the measurement of loyalty to the party. If one does not participate, they are summoned to attend ideological self-criticism, which may be escalated to further political penalties.


Reporting by Park, Sun-Hwa.

Translated by Yongmin Lee.

Read in Korean.

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