Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Matthew M. asks:
What are the differences in jobs in North Korea, how frequently can you change jobs, and what about pay? Are you able to quit your job if you work in North Korea?
To talk about jobs in North Korea, I should first highlight that North Korean society has fundamentally changed with the collapse of the ration system. How people think about their jobs and incomes also has changed, as this system is totally destroyed.
Basically, people in North Korea do not have the freedom to choose their occupations. Once you’re assigned a job from the government, it is your lifelong job. The reason the government assigns jobs is very simple: As part of strict control over all kinds of resources under its collectivism system, the government researches how many people are needed in each industry and location, and assigns people accordingly. The idea of employment in North Korea is therefore very different than in other countries. In North Korea, a job does not mean anything except where you go to work following the government order. That is why North Korean students do not have any dreams or aspirations about their future. They already know there’s no way they can make their dreams come true.
When I was a kid, I went to a kindergarten exclusively for children of military executives. The teachers there made sure that when anyone asked me about my dreams, I would answer: “I will study hard and be a medical doctor when I grow up. My dream is to make North Korean people healthy and well, and bring joy to Gen. Kim Il Sung.” Memorizing those sentences, I held on to a feeble dream that I was meant to be a doctor when I grew up. Later, after I graduated from that kindergarten I realized that even that planted answer was government propaganda.
In reality, most kids in North Korea cannot even think about their future. They really don’t have to, because the government makes choices on their behalf. Parents also do not bother worrying about their children’s future because they already know that what they want for their children will not make any difference. Upon graduation from high school, students fill out a form listing their top three career choices, but everyone knows it is nothing more than a formality. The government assigns the graduates with any jobs they think proper or necessary, and what the students want is not at all taken into account.
“Even though you have a job from the government, you have to find ways of earning your living on your own”
Joining the military is mandatory for boys upon graduation, and some girls are also obliged to join. I was 5-foot-2, the second-tallest girl in our class, and I was ordered into the military under the order of Kim Jong Il that all girls 5-foot-2 or taller have to serve (North Korean teenagers are generally shorter than this due to poor nutrition).
The rest of the graduates are placed in factories nearby, and the criteria for placement is merely how close they live to the factories. Once you’re assigned to work somewhere, it is almost impossible to be transferred. People are not really interested in moving anyway, because they know they will do the same fieldwork and receive the same salary/rations wherever they go.
However, after the rations system broke down, these strict rules regarding jobs were broken. Jobs are nothing more than meaningless titles you can mention when asked, “Where do you work?” The factories long ago stopped manufacturing, and factory workers cannot expect compensation for their labor. Even though you have a job from the government, you have to find ways of earning your living on your own. That’s why many parents in North Korea have started bribing government officers even before their kids graduate high school. They want their kids to get decent jobs that still pay salaries and provide rations.
One of the most popular workplaces in North Korea these days is in organizations earning foreign currency. Those organizations, launched in the early 2000s, have now spread everywhere in North Korea. What they are doing is basically exporting North Korean resources abroad and creating funds for the government. People working in those organizations still receive rations, and on top of that, they also have a chance for additional income depending on their performance. People working in these organizations are admired much like those in big companies like Samsung in South Korea.
“One of the most popular workplaces in North Korea these days is in organizations earning foreign currency”
Foreign currency-earning organizations are very powerful because most of them are under the umbrella of the party, the armed forces or other powerful agencies of the government. Competition to get into those organizations is severe, and you need to have either a very strong family background or a lot of money to be employed there. Actually, most of the people working in those organizations are children of party officers or executives of wealthy foreign currency-earning organizations.
Some factories have been very popular among job seekers, due to their being under the direct supervision of Kim Jong Il or Kim Jong Un. Direct supervision from the Kim family means exceptionally good conditions. It means raw materials will be provided by the government, products will be manufactured by the workers in the factories and, because actual end products will come out, workers will receive rations. Also, some workers will have access to products that they can steal and sell elsewhere.
In response to the increasing demand for more rewarding jobs, bribery is becoming more common in North Korea. There are certain steps to follow to get the desired job: First, you have to bribe the officers and steal your personnel record from the local administrative agencies. Then you have to bribe the factory managers or party secretaries so that they will issue letters of confirmation that they would like to hire you. Lastly, you have to submit the letter to the administrative agency in charge of assigning jobs. Everyone involved knows about the other parties’ bribery, but they choose to overlook.
These days, parents try to think of any possible way to get their kids good jobs through bribery or using their family background. People who cannot afford to bribe officers just send their kids wherever they are assigned. Instead, they bribe managers in the factory so that their kids do not really have to go to work; they work in the market instead, but they have to give part of their income to the factory. A majority of the younger women work as vendors in the market with their names registered in their formally assigned workplaces. What is important is that they are registered; in North Korea, not having a job is illegal and can result in punishment.
“The government assigns thousands of recently discharged veterans onto national projects or businesses that need large-scale manpower”
Veterans who have served in the military more than 10 years are also assigned new jobs when they are discharged. Most of them go back to their hometown and work where the local government says. However, some unlucky soldiers are not allowed to return to where they came from. The government assigns thousands of recently discharged veterans onto national projects or businesses that need large-scale manpower. Those subject to these assignments have no choice but to go.
For example, when Kim Jong Il was alive, he supervised Taehongdan-gun in Ryanggang province, which is rich with potatoes but has few people living in it. Kim Jong Il started supervising the region and soon he figured out there were not enough people to grow the potatoes. So thousands of the veterans had to move to Ryanggang and become lifelong potato farmers.
They had to build houses to live in with their own hands. They were also concerned about their children’s future, because the children of farmers might also be assigned to work in the farms when they grew up. Despite these concerns, there was nothing they could do to change the situation. It was a policy set by Kim Jong Il and they did not want to be rebellions.
“Bribery has become such a powerful trend that is now uncontrollable”
Forcibly assigning thousands of young men to one region brought another problem, which was the lack of young women they could marry. To solve this problem, the government recruited young women of marriageable age and sent them to Taehongdan-gun. There were small benefits given to women who volunteered for this, such as the provision of cooking tools or free rations of groceries like oil or sugar at holidays, however, these benefits were obviously not enough, and there were always many more men than women in Ryanggang. Many of the veterans in Ryanggang still have not found spouses. Taehongdan-gun is just one example; this kind of forcible placement is happening all over the country with many different national businesses making soldiers near their date of discharge worried about their future.
However, as I described so far, strict regulations on occupations now exist in name only since the collapse of the social system in North Korea. Bribery has become such a powerful trend that is now uncontrollable. I think these changes are clearly another symptom of the failed system of socialism. It looks like it is too late to reverse this trend and it’s time to say goodbye to the old system. Let me tell you about my very personal wish: If the old system has obviously failed and has to go, I wish for it to go away quickly. I hope it is replaced with a new system that allows people to dream of what they want to be and encourages them to make their dreams reality. That basic freedom of choice is on my wish list for the North Korean people.
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Editing and translation by Ashley Cho