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Peter Ward is a writer and researcher focusing on the North Korean economy, as well as a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna.
Being a man who believed, in theory, in progress and in the dignity of the working man, when Kim Il Sung came to power he introduced the “Eight Hour Working Day” (‘Eight Hour Work System’ in the original Korean).
By the standards of late 1940s East Asia, this was a progressive move. But do not worry, an addendum to this was added in 1967.
Workers were not left to spend the other sixteen hours of the day on idle leisure. No, at least another eight of those hours were to be spent on study. As the Great Leader said:
“The working class came up with this slogan, and they must keep to the eight-hour work system that they have attained through bloody struggle. Everyone has the civic obligation to faithfully work for 480 minutes [a day] and understand this to be their solemn social duty. The eight hours work, eight hours rest, eight hours study system must be comprehensively implemented in every field.” (Complete Works of Kim Il Sung, Volume 39, p. 168).
The working day of eight hours on the shop floor or in the fields likely included one of those hours of rest, and preparing for work and cleaning afterwards probably another hour too.
Of course, Kim Il Sung claims that this is what the workers had wanted all along, this was the dictatorship that they had created, which ruled in their name and in their interests (his claim), so what’s the problem?
The Great Leader hadn’t perhaps cared to think about the problem of work-life balance. What if you had a family to take care of? Then the number of hour’s rest actually spent on non-study related activities that were not sleep would start to multiply. There were some mothers – and fathers – in North Korea of the 1970s and 1980s who were probably very tired a lot of the time.
DICTATORSHIP OF THE PROLETARIAT
The Great Leader didn’t just want school pupils and students in the country’s colleges and universities to study, he wanted the entire population to spend eight hours a day studying.
The reasoning here was simple: make workers into scientists and soldiers of the revolution. The latter is not that surprising: Kim Il Sung wanted to build a modern, advanced socialist state, and he believed that workers “armed” with the correct ideology was crucial to this.
When it came to science, however, things become more interesting. If you ever watch a North Korean film about factory life, or ever read what Kim Il Sung has to say about innovation and technological progress, the point becomes clearer.
Workers and farmers, when unshackled from capitalist exploitation, would be transformed into masters of production who will discover new ways to speed up production, improve product quality, or even invent new products and machines to make them.
Kim Il Sung was most definitely not a fan of people not working unless it was absolutely necessary
In this regard, Kim Il Sung was a committed (if not particularly deep) Marxist. He believed that it was the capitalist system of exploitation that was the root of most problems of industrial life: the stress, the boredom, the dangers, the alienation, the frustration.
When the workers were told that now their factory was being run in their name by a worker’s party, the theory went, they would be transformed from brutalized, exploited cogs in a capitalist machine into shock trooper technicians and engineers who would herald an era of perpetual, exponential economic growth.
Hence the need for both ideological and technical education.
Whether spending eight hours a day working and another eight hours a day effectively at school was realistic or not was probably not something that Kim Il Sung’s subordinates thought to raise with him. Obviously, this system was not fully implemented, and workers most likely found ways to get out of some of their ‘mandatory study sessions’.
But countless hours were still probably sacrificed by many an average North Korean who had no choice but to do as they were told.
And the fun didn’t end with retirement, because Kim Il Sung was most definitely not a fan of people not working unless it was absolutely necessary.
“YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR”
The “undeserving poor” are not a regular fixture of North Korean propaganda, but it doesn’t mean that Kim Il Sung wanted the sick and old to be idle.
In North Korean agitprop, a special place was reserved for those maimed in the Korean War, who were accorded special privileges including special rations, better housing, medals (obviously), and a state that made strenuous efforts to ensure that they were not lonely – often by finding them spouses.
However, if you were not unlucky enough to have been permanently crippled in a war of your leader’s choosing, then you would have to rely on a state welfare system that had permanent work requirements built in.
If one reads Kim Il Sung’s work on the fishing industry, the retail sector, or household production one will come across mentions of ‘recipients of social insurance’, ‘the weak-bodied’, and ‘the aged’ who, of course, want to be useful, and should be put to work on ‘side-work’ in these parts of the economy.
This was not a one-time, throwaway suggestion of the Great Leader.
Indeed, if you look up “household service production” – small-scale production of consumer goods, small-scale food processing etc. – in the North Korean encyclopaedia, you will see that ‘social insurance recipients’ and ‘the aged’ are listed, along with ‘housewives’, as the primary workforce for this activity.
Life under Kim Il Sung was not easy for most by modern standards
If you turn to Kim’s speeches, from the 1960s onward he suggests on numerous occasions that the aged and the sick be put to work. Here are a few examples, just in case you don’t believe me.
The first quote is from a speech given in 1963, published in a volume of Kim Il Sung’s speeches released in 2000 by the North Korean government. The second is from a speech given in 1978 in an official volume of Kim Il Sung’s speeches released in 2006 (again by the North Korean government). The third is from a speech given in 1987, it was published in volume 39 of Kim Il Sung’s Collected Works.
“Small and medium-scale fishing isn’t hard to do, and the equipment is simple, and the boats can be easily made. Anyone can do it if they put their mind to it, whether they’re old, or they’re an infirm social insurance recipient. Why couldn’t they even do fishing [with a rod]?” (Complete Works of Kim Il Sung, Volume 30, pp. 348-9).
“Mobile purchasing [of goods from producers] is nothing special, thus anyone can do it. If good people from among workers who struggle to do harder work in mines or social insurance recipients are picked out and taught how to do it, they can get it all done. Mobile purchasing just involves driving a truck from place to place, it’s not hard.” (Complete Works of Kim Il Sung, Volume 66, p. 128).
“We need to get a workforce for coastal fish farming… It would be good if the workforce be made up of 30% young-to-middle aged workers, with the other 70% being the old, social insurance recipients, and the infirm. There are going to be people who are too old or weak to work in jobs like mining. It’d be good to put them to work in coastal fish farming… It’s not a hard job…” (Collected Works of Kim Il Sung, Volume 39)
Life under Kim Il Sung was not easy for most by modern standards. It required that you work eight hours a day, and in addition, you were supposed to spend another eight hours of the day improving your technical skills and ideological virtues.
When you grew too old, sick, and tired to do the job that you had been assigned as a younger person, you could retire safe in the knowledge that the state had yet more work to keep you busy, until you finally did what we all eventually do: die.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons