Just like Lenin’s Communist League of Youth, North Korea’s very own youth league includes the name of the country’s god-like founder in its title, underscoring the important role it plays in the social fabric of the country.
But despite requiring the participation of all North Koreans between the ages of 14 to 30 and comprising five million members, the Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League has not assembled for a congress event in over 20 years.
This Friday, however, it will meet for the league’s ninth congress, an event that state media has described as a “starting line of the new history”.
The first youth congress in 23 years, the event comes after Kim Jong Un laid out concern for youth policies in his new year’s speech and at the seventh congress of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in May.
But what’s behind North Korea’s apparently sudden re-focus on youth after such a long period? In terms of those attending the congress, are they being coerced into fulfilling youth league responsibilities – or do they really want to help their country?
And, amid increasing flows of information and better awareness of the outside world, are there now any risks in Kim Jong Un’s attempt to leverage North Korea’s younger generations?
YOUTH POLICY, OR EXPLOITATION?
Youth Day, falling on August 28, was first designated in 1991, shortly after the revolutions of 1989 that caused the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and, ultimately, the downfall of the USSR, in 1991.
After so many years period of congressional dormancy, the renewed focus on youth in 2016, one expert said, is personally down to Kim Jong Un.
“Youth have been considered a so-called supporting pillar of the Kim Jong Un-era and they are future supporters (of Kim’s regime),” Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies (UNKS) told NK News.
“(Kim Jong Un) is putting more emphasis on younger generations in line with the image of a young leader and youthful North, and holding the congress is an extension of this,” Yang added.
But 20-something-year-old defector Kim Jun Hyuk, who was a Pyongyang-based government official until last year and involved in work with the Youth Shock Brigade, said there was no such thing as youth policy in the DPRK.
“Based on the leader’s youth-first idea, the younger generation should belong to the Youth Shock Brigade as the vanguard of the ruling party,” he said, referring to a military construction unit that falls under the auspices of the North’s youth league.
These youth policies are not about conferring benefits to young people, but about ways to utilize them
Whenever social problems emerge, he said, the state can mobilize its youth “at full bore,” benefiting from the “high-level labor productivity” their young age can provide, while keeping them preoccupied from potentially dangerous concerns.
It’s those people who are often seen in broadcasts aired by Korean Central Television (KCTV), youth clad in uniforms digging endlessly in the ground, carrying soil by hand, and running around the construction sites of high-rise buildings and power plants.
And because these youth provide the North Korean regime a kind of free labor source, it means they play a vital role for the impoverished country, being historically in charge of projects like the colossal ten lane Pyongyang-Nampo Highway and Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station No. 3.
But the youth who worked on projects like these were forced to work more than 14 hours per day for almost 10 years, all while being subjected to harsh conditions. “That’s not a policy but way of deceiving youngsters to become a labor force,” Kim said.
Another Pyongyang defector, Jason Lee, who fled the North during his military service in 2012, said those youth required to work on labor projects only got one rice bowl filled with wheat and pickled radish per day, meaning some were left to commit theft because of starvation.
“These youth policies are not about conferring benefits to young people, but about ways to utilize them,” Lee told NK News.
SHORTCUT TO RULING PARTY
Despite the long hours and hard work, there are surprisingly many young North Koreans eager to be a part of the Kim Il Sung Youth League’s principal support mechanism for state development, the Youth Shock Brigade, according to defectors and observers.
One motive for contributing to the Youth Shock Brigade, despite the intense labor and bad reputations of many of its members, relates to aspirations of one day joining the ruling WPK party.
“Members of the youth league are reserve forces who lead the entire North Korean society not just now, but also for the future,” Kim Seok-hyang, professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University said.
One motive for contributing to the Youth Shock Brigade…relates to aspirations of one day joining the ruling WPK party
Michael Kim, one of the defectors, said understanding why North Koreans want to join the Youth Shock Brigade is like understanding why young Westerners want to work at large companies.
“You are afraid of major companies… but you also want to join them,” he said. “Once you’re in it’s hard to raise your voices there and leave … because of the regular and higher wages compared to others, and the guaranteed promotion system.”
The Youth Shock Brigade has similar, but socialist benefits.
“If someone works harder than others for 10 years, then the party allows him or her join,” Kim said. “And if you become a member of the party, it means you have a leadership position,” he continued, something which could be lucrative.
“As a leader, I had the right to manage rice for my platoon members and cement for construction, so I could make extra money (by siphoning off stuff)”.
More than any other place in the world, North Korean society should consequently be looked at more as a “relation of gain and loss,” Kim said.
CAPITALISM AND INFORMATION
During North Korea’s infamous speed and productivity battles, the Youth Shock Brigade is known to have a particularly high reputation.
North Korean officials “often said the Speed Battle Youth Shock Brigade implements the party policies and plays a pivotal role as a bastion in the van,” defector Lee said, looking back at the time he participated in the 8th youth congress in 1993.
“It produced the executives,” Lee he continued, referring to a number of brigade members who went on to get positions within the ruling party.
However, things have changed since those days.
From the early 2000s, many young people began avoiding joining the Youth Shock Brigade during speed battles, which was beyond imagination during Lee’s days in Pyongyang.
From the early 2000s, many young people began avoiding joining the Youth Shock Brigade during speed battles
Today “people believe all they need is money by the influence of capitalism, which is quite different from the past,” he said.
People have changed “their thoughts and prefer gaining even a small amount of money by themselves,” he said, because “capitalism works to get through all sorts of hardships” – even the requirement of joining the Youth Shock Brigade.
But as information flows into North Korea continue to increase amid the flourishing of capitalist sentiment, could Kim Jong Un’s new youth policies pose any threat?
Observers say no, pointing out there is a slim chance of a social uprising among young people in spite of the harsh reality and a tendency to avoid forced labor.
Defector Lee said younger people couldn’t afford to think about rebelling because they remain bound together as a result of the collectivism of the youth league system, where they must serve their loyalty to either military or the Youth Shock Brigade for almost ten years.
“In my opinion, the Gwangju (Democratic) uprising was led by those who are young and don’t get married and have children,” Lee said, referring to a major political protest that took place in South Korea in May, 1980.
“However, half of normal North Korean youth are tied down by military service,” he continued.
“After being discharged from the army, they get married right at the age of 27 or 28…becoming old men after having children,” Lee said. “They become a robot after 10-years of obedience…(and) this is why an insurgency like the Gwangju uprising can’t happen.”
As a result, Lee said the young people of the North are like “a frog in a well” who thinks the sky has a round shape.
“These young generations have no capabilities to raise a rebellion…non-North Koreans can open their eyes and compare through the internet … but there is no such standard in the North to measure whether one’s life is humane or not,” Lee said.
As a result, “there is no (external) standard for the world they want to create,” Lee added.
Professor Kim underscored that because North Korean authorities drive their people to the brink, young citizens are left with little space to feel humiliation.
“If we sleep a few hours and are provided with poor food, the first thing we want is to eat and sleep more,” Kim said. “You can understand why the younger generations can’t rise up.”
Main picture: Ray Cunningham
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Featured Image: North Korean youth on the Revolutionary Experience by Ray Cunningham on 2010-08-14 10:02:37