When dealing with humans, actions taken in expectation of specific results often have quite unexpected outcomes. North Korea is a case in point. Differing political points of view aside, some observers have been concerned that applying stringent sanctions to Pyongyang would hurt the average citizen. For that reason, care was taken to exempt foodstuffs and medicines from the list of banned goods.
After all, the objective was to tighten the financial screws on the Kim Jong Un regime and to eliminate the importation of luxury goods with which the suryong buys loyalty from senior party members, ranking military personnel and other elites in his inner circle. While there are indeed indications that at least some contraband goods are being halted from entering North Korea, foods seem to be getting through just as intended without problem, and prices on such goods appear to be holding steady in any case.
Pyongyang has found a way to pass down the pain
Those that were predicting that sanctions would hurt the average citizen, however, were right – but not quite in the way they predicted. It turns out that since the regime is losing hard currency because it is no longer allowed to export certain items – another objective of the sanctions – Pyongyang has found a way to pass down the pain.
CHASING THE MONEY
The world has long known that the North has been exporting tens of thousands of its citizens abroad to earn cash. The regime then heavily skims the workers’ wages, which are not paid directly to them. However, due to a number of recent defections by restaurant workers who were carefully vetted members of a trusted class of individuals, fewer such workers are being sent to foreign countries, thus reducing that revenue stream. And other nations have recently rejected North Korean workers due to political pressure or fear of running afoul of sanctions. Cash for the North is likely slowing considerably from what it was before.
Now Pyongyang is instead beginning to send its soldiers abroad to work on construction projects. There are advantages to using conscripts over civilians. First, the soldiers are not compensated like civilians and need only to be lodged and fed, which reduces the costs of doing business. Second, whatever wages the soldiers earn in foreign countries are almost completely kept by the regime.
Even so, this is not enough to offset the reduction of hard currency income lost from exports that are no longer allowed. Nonetheless, the regime has found a way to compensate for those loses in part – at least for the short term.
PASSING THE BUCK
Recall the 70-Day Battle leading up to the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) Congress last month. Citizens were required to contribute to making Pyongyang beautiful and getting everything ready for the big convocation. There were grumblings as people had to get up earlier than normal in order to devote precious hours to projects in support of those preparations, and they often were prohibited from working in their marketplaces or engaging in other jangmadang activities. This of course affected their personal earnings. Students were required to sacrifice their studies for the overall good of the WPK as well.
As if that were not enough, almost immediately following the closing ceremony of the Congress, Pyongyang declared a 200-Day Battle for planting rice to ensure a good crop to combat expected harvest shortfalls. To this was added the task of pulling weeds. More rumbles of discontent were heard as people wearied of the extra duties that taxed their abilities to earn a living and made their daily lives a drudgery.
THE LAST STRAW?
This latest drive is another slave labor project for the development of Ryomyong Street
Now Pyongyang has announced another project, one designed to bolster Kim Jong Un’s image by furthering the fiction that Pyongyang is a showcase of appreciation for the efforts of its workers. This latest drive is another slave labor project for the development of Ryomyong Street.
Guised under the label of “loyalty donation campaign,” residents of Pyongyang must come up the equivalent of U.S.$50 or show up for construction work in lieu of cash donations. The problem is that while some – the elites and many of the donju – can easily afford the $50 in lieu of labor for the Ryomyong Street project, others cannot. Currently, it applies to only residents of the capital, although many expect it to eventually spread out to the rest of the country.
For those others, it’s Hi-Ho Hi-Ho and off to work they go, at the expense of donating their time and labor to the project du jour instead of what they would otherwise be doing to make a living. This is especially challenging for those who struggle to get by, barely making ends meet as it is.
THE END OF THE LINE
Wearing the average North Korean citizen down is certainly not good for the individual, but neither it is good for the state in the long term. Human capital is much more valuable than Kim Jong Un appreciates, to say nothing about his forced labor projects being yet another violation of people’s basic rights.
In light of all the recent burdensome work requirements thrust upon the common people, the question becomes one of how much can the North Korean citizenry endure before they financially bleed out, drop from exhaustion – or, possibly, rebel?
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Featured Image: Workers in Pyongyang - North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2010-05-09 17:53:54