Overworked, injured, and underfed: North Korea's youth shock troops

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2017-03-17 11:04

Daily NK and Unification Media Group will be interviewing victims of abuses and broadcasting excerpts of the recorded testimonies to listeners in North Korea as part of broader efforts to support the Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea, established in November 2016 pursuant to South Korea's North Korean Human Rights Act. It is hoped that this will raise awareness among the North Korean population that the outside world stands in solidarity against their oppression, as well as serve as a warning to the perpetrators that they will one day be held accountable.

Todays guest served from 1979-1987 as a Speed Battle Youth Shock Trooper in North Korea. Jo Chung Hee will offer his testimony regarding the labor exploitation that he experienced while serving the regime. Can you please introduce yourself? 

I am from Pyongsong City in South Pyongan Province. In February 2011, I escaped North Korea, and entered South Korea one month later. 

You worked as a shock trooper for about 10 years. Can you start by telling us some background information about North Koreas Shock Troops? 

The Speed Battle Shock Troop was established on May 16, 1975. At the time, the country was experiencing an economic downturn, so Kim Jong Il introduced the idea of shock troops as a way to address the problems. The shock troops were ordered to assist state construction projects and were sent to work on projects all over the country, including North Koreas famous monuments. 

North Koreans are at least 17 years old when they graduate from Middle-High School. After graduation, most students are immediately placed in a college prep school, a shock troop unit, a military unit, or a job. You must have known that being a shock trooper would be difficult. Im curious why you ended up going down that path.  

Most people go to the army or university when they graduate. But there are some people who have little choice but to become shock troopers. People like me - who are ethnic Koreans from Japan or their offspring - are regarded as part of the hostile class. Those in the hostile class are banned from entering university and are not sent to the military. Its a form of discrimination. Everyone knows how hard it is to be a shock trooper. Nobody wants to go. I didnt have much of a choice.  

Where was the unit that were you assigned to? 

The region for each unit isnt fixed. We get dispatched all over the country, depending on where were needed. For example, I was mobilized to participate in group construction at Pyongyangs Peoples University, Kwangbok Street, and a television factory in the Taedong River region. 

The shock troops are organized like the military. I was assigned to the First Brigade of the Speed Battle Central Youth Shock Troops. Usually, there are 14 brigades. Today, each province has its own Youth Shock Troops, composed of 11 or 12 brigades. In total, there are about 40,000-50,000 shock troopers throughout the country.  

Working for so many years on such laborious construction projects must have been extremely strenuous. 

Yes. An incident from 1979 comes to mind. We were dispatched that summer to a small island in the Taedong River in Pyongyang City. Kim Jong Il ordered the construction of a villa on the island. Our brigade had five squads, and I was in the second squad. The second squad received a good evaluation, so we were ordered to work on the villa. Our squad was told to complete the foundation within a week. So we worked tirelessly without sleep for a week straight. Because the construction had to be a secret, we werent given heavy equipment. We only had shovels and pickaxes and were told to get to work.      

Our squad had about 300 people. Can you imagine 300 people working under such conditions without sleep for a week? We had breaks that only lasted about 5-10 minutes. We werent allowed to sit. We just stood around and took a drink of water. The only time we were allowed to sit was during mealtimes. We were so exhausted that we could hardly drink water. We just wanted to use that time to try and catch up on sleep, but we were told to finish our meals and get back to work.  

After a week of carrying on like this, we finished construction of the foundation. Up until that time, we actually had no clue what kind of construction we were doing. At the final stages of the job, however, Workers Party partisans came and fed us bread and candy. Only then, did they tell us what it was - a villa for Kim Jong Il. 

Before that, we were given a bulgogi party to celebrate the completion of the foundation. But none of us could eat; instead, we collapsed and slept. 

What was the daily workload like for the shock troops?

In the summer, we woke up at 5:30-6:00 AM for morning work and exercise. 

After this, we were given some time to read the paper and eat breakfast. Even eating breakfast was done in the military style - we had to line up and sing songs. If we didn't sing or line up properly, we had to run laps around the track. 

That's the kind of hardship we underwent just for a bowl of rice. After breakfast comes morning inspection. They look at our clothes and tools to see if they pass the standards. Our clothes were North Korean-style. It was closer to an exercise outfit than a military uniform. 

After that, we sent to work from about 9am until noon. For lunch, I thought we would get an hour to eat, but we only got about 30 minutes. 

The food was given out in containers. Female workers would portion the food and hand it out so we could quickly eat it right at the construction site. The meal was usually a rice ball, which was packed and had bits of vegetable in it. 

After we finished lunch, we went back to work. We were supposed to finish our assignments by 7pm. But we were sometimes given assignments after that. On some occasions they wouldn't feed us dinner until 10pm. On other occasions, they would withhold the food until we finished our work around midnight. That happened often. 

Did you get enough to eat? Considering you were participating in such grueling labor, one would think youd need to eat an awful lot. 

The national daily allowance was officially 700 grams. But not everyone received the full amount. There were various codes and regulations that they used to change the amount. So in actuality they gave us about 580 grams per day. 

When divided up, that is less than 200 grams per meal. There were some occasions when we were also provided with soup at lunch, but the rice was put in the soup the previous day, so it was all soggy by the time we ate it. We could use up all the energy in the soup within an hour. So the shock troops really have to use their own ingenuity to fill their stomachs. In the fall, we would ransack fields that we passed by. We stole every bit of food we could get our hands on. We would also grab farm animals and wildlife to eat. 

How much was your monthly salary? 

When I entered the shock troops, I received approximately 56 KPW. At that time, laborers were receiving about 80 - 100 KPW. That means that I got about half the going rate. Of course, our clothing and food was provided, so this accounts for some of the difference, but it was such a small amount that we couldnt possibly save much. After the July 1st Measures were implemented [in 2002], our pay went up to 1,000 - 2,000 KPW. The problem was that the cost of living was also rising, and necessities like rice cost 5,000 per kg, so we still couldnt afford much. Even though they provided us with some food, in reality, it wasnt that much different from starving. The quantity was meager and the quality was low.   

When you worked on large construction projects, what kind of equipment were you given? 

The shock troops work without any special construction equipment. We had to use our own strength. We were sent to sites with nothing but spades and pick axes. The construction companies working alongside us brought proper equipment to the site, but only their workers were allowed to use them. Sometimes the equipment would vary slightly depending on the job. For apartment buildings and the Grand Peoples Study House [central library in Pyongyang], we were given spades, pick axes, hammers, burlap sacks, and various plastering tools. But most of the time, we were using our hands to do the job.    

Did they provide the proper safety equipment? 

We had safety helmets, but they were made of woven plants. They began to fall apart after just a few days of use. We were given new helmets once a year. No one could survive if a large rock fell on their head while wearing one of those. On the other hand, company commanders and higher-ranking officers were given plastic hardhats. That made it easy for anyone passing by to distinguish the company commanders from the normal recruits. Later, shock troopers began to die in large numbers, so a safety monitor was assigned. But all that person did was blow a whistle and yell out which way to run when the soil collapsed and things came crashing down around us.       

Were there any accidents that you particularly remember? 

The ground is frozen in the winter, making it very hard to dig. During those times, we had to dig deeper. One time when we were digging, the ground beneath us began to shift. The two shock troopers who were at the bottom of the hole got buried under the dirt and died. Now that I think about it, two normally healthy young people should have been able to crawl out of it. But they were both suffering from malnutrition.     

For those injured or killed on a worksite, is there any treatment available or compensation given?

Originally, North Korea was set up to have free medical treatment. So if we got hurt, they did send us to the hospital. But the hospitals were in a sorry state, so it was hard to get proper treatment. I went into the shock troops with a friend. He was the eldest son in his family, so they were expecting big things of him. His father served in the Vietnam War and was designated a war hero. One day, my friends legs were severed while working on a construction job. They took him to the hospital, but they didnt have any blood there, so they couldnt give him proper treatment.  

My friend was type B, and luckily enough, I was as well. So I donated a good amount of blood to him. However, in the end, it wasnt enough to save him. Before he closed his eyes, he called out my name and said, Im going to die before I can even get married. What really infuriated me was the fact that the story published about my friends death in the Rodong Sinmun [North Koreas party-run publication] had his dying words changed to, Please finish the construction of the railroad. Seeing them use my friends death as propaganda really made me seethe with anger. 

If you were unable to finish a construction job inside the allotted time, what happened? 

We never failed to reach a construction goal. We did whatever was necessary to accomplish the mission. We always tried to finish one day earlier than we were instructed to. On occasion, we worked on 24-hour rotations to make that happen. We had to finish, even if it meant not sleeping for a week, or even ten days. Our top commanders pushed us to use whatever means necessary to do so. 

If you could go back in time to your 17-year old self, would you choose to go into the shock troops again? 

I sometimes wonder myself how I was able to live such a life for 10 years. Sometimes I dream about the shock troops. I dont have any other nightmares except for these. Ive gotten much older now and Ive been in South Korea for quite a bit of time, but I still have bad dreams about the shock troops. I wake up to find my bed is covered in cold sweat.  

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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