Daily NK Reports Uprisings in Labor Camps, Factory

Recently, the North Korean regime decided that its emaciated slaves hadn’t worked hard enough and declared a “150-day battle,” sending more of them to labor in the countryside and in the factories. The “battle,” however, appears to have taken a turn the authorities didn’t anticipate, according to an exile organization called North Korean Intellectuals Solidarity:

It reported, “In a provincial labor-training camp located in Dongheung-district, Hamheung, South Hamkyung Province, a camp inspector, who was also a manager in the Department of Justice of the People’s Committee, was killed by inmates.

Meanwhile, “In Hoiryeong, North Hamkyung Province, 18 prisoners in a labor-training camp, in the process of being mobilized for construction work, beat managers, tied and gagged them and then escaped.

In one other case in Chongjin Steel Complex, Chongjin, North Hamkyung Province, 40 workers and managers, including an engineering team manager, have had to concentrate on their private businesses and not their work at the Complex because they have not been given any food by the factory since June. [Daily NK]

The obvious caveats apply — there’s no way to verify any information that comes out of North Korea. If true, these stories would be evidence that the state’s grip is again weakening, as it did during the famine years. The result then was a wave of outbreaks of discontent, though an infusion of South Korean, Chinese, and international aid eventually helped the regime to reestablish control. (Most of the South Korean and international aid was ultimately funded by American taxpayers.)

Now, as then, the outbreaks are fragmentary and thus easily isolated and suppressed. To challenge the regime effectively, the outbreaks will have to happen across wide segments of the country, something that will only happen when good broadcasting and an effective underground make nationwide coordination possible. Knowing this, the regime is cracking down on cell phone possession, which is why Orascom is going to lose a great deal of money in North Korea.

(Hat tip to Irene.)


  1. Right – it seems likely that the 150-day campaign, which may have been meant to provide at least minimal claims of achievement for a (now-in-remission) move to crown a successor, could backfire badly. At the same time, there appears to be no apparent “tipping point” at which the society overturns itself and the state security, although grumbling itself, remains firmly in control. So even though bad news for the regime, it’s difficult to say if these isolated instances of rebellion add up to much in the long term.

    The workers in the rural coal mines I saw last month up on the upper reaches of the Tumen river north of Changbai/Hyesan did not appear too happy, but then again, there were all those nice KPA keeping active in the area to keep out foreign spies and make sure people don’t just abandon their posts. No one in North Korea seems to complain about overwork for its own sake, but when various elites are the only ones seen to profit without changes in food ration for the workers, then we have a violation of the DPRK social compact.

    Good Friends Korea, one of your “Clandestine Reporting” links in the sidebar has had excellent reports for the past month, although I for one would like to see a bit more discussion (and you would be an ideal person to enlighten me on this particular point) of the origin of the information. Are these, like Daily NK reports, mostly taken from cell phone conversations with North Koreans or from actual recent defectors? Fabrications are always possible, but I would like to think that the Good Friends reports are basically solid.

    In any case, here is one of the relevant sections about Yodok. Again, it doesn’t add up to a rebellion, but it does indicate something more systemic: weary authorities getting sloppy and self-interested, leading to a touch of chaos:

    Explosion at Gasoline Storage Inside Yoduk Prison

    In early June a big explosion occurred at the gasoline storage inside Yoduk County prison. At the time prison people were unloading the gasoline transported from oil production facility in Baekma County, North Pyongan Province. The gasoline was transported in about 60 drums carried by regular trucks rather than in a tanker truck. The Support Bureau employees were all gone for the day when the gasoline arrived late at night. So, they mobilized 5 prison inmates for the work. Even though they summoned the inmates in cooperation with the correctional officer who was on night duty it was a violation of the prison rule. The accident occurred when the work was almost over. A gasoline drum exploded all of a sudden and other gasoline drums got on fire one after another and exploded, turning the whole place into an inferno in no time. Two inmates died because of fire and two other inmates were shot to death by correction officers. The receiving employee at the scene and the correctional officer on night duty were in coma with 3rd degree burn in the whole body, but the receiving employee died soon after.

    Two Support Bureau freight trucks burned completely and twenty-two tons of whole corn harvested last year was damaged because of the accident. The correctional officer, who barely survived the accident, is going to be executed. The prison authorities alleged that the eldest inmates (age 56) among the chosen five spilled a large amount of gasoline and ignited the fire. He is an inmate in solitary confinement and he committed arson because of depression and vengeance after repeated extensions of his sentence. The police reported that he set the fire on purpose to commit a suicide as he thought he wouldn’t be able to get released from the prison. According to the witnesses, while moving the gasoline drums to the storage the arsonist hit the drums with a hammer as if he tried to make sparks. One of the witnesses said, “When people tried to stop him there was a spark and fire erupted. The correctional officer shot him with a gun, but the gasoline spill on the floor got on fire and spread to other drums. They closed the door of the storage right away when the fire broke out. However, fire erupted with an explosion. The fire was extinguished barely by blocking the entrance of the tunnel with a storage tank and by putting soil on top. Fortunately, it rained a lot that night.”

    In the mean time, the National Security Agency emphasized that the control on the inmates will be further reinforced in prisons around the country and the prison rules to be observed more strictly. At the same time, they will dispatch inspection teams to each prison in order to check on the status of prison management and operation.”

    Finally, an immodest reference that may be helpful: In interests of understanding how various combustible elements in North Korean society combine to actually produce a rebellion, I would recommend my recent Journal of Korean Studies article on the Sinuiju Incident/”counterrevolutionary rebellion” of November 1945. According to the journal reviewers and my own research, the article is the only extensive treatment of this episode in any language (the rebellion merits four pages in Charles Armstrong’s indispensable 2003 book “The North Korean Revolution,” gets a couple of sentences from Cumings in two of his books; failings with the South Korean scholarship are discussed in the article itself). Although it isn’t as sexy or as accessible as the contemporary stuff, I could certainly send you or any other interested parties a hard copy if you think it might be useful.

    It just seems that if you (and Dana Rohrbacher, who mixes it up with Sig Harrison on pages 29-31 of the February 12 House hearing) are going to postulate the Great North Korean Rebellion, it might be a good idea to examine how and why one flamed up and out, at least once, in the DPRK’s murky past.


  2. Reading stories like this make me think about ways I’ve tried to picture the end coming. One of them involves a fairly spontaneous event in which average citizens are inspired by hearing of others rising up to join in themselves. Today when reading this, the thought hit me:

    North Korea has been pretty smart in its despotism in locking up whole families. The fewer people you leave intimately connected to people shipped to the concentration camps, the less you have them spreading discontent among their friends, and the less chance you have of such a spontaneous, wide-spread general uprising happening.

    By taking away extended families, you leave little behind that feels great discontent + you help scare the crap out of other families…..

    I guess there is a reason why the regime in Pyongyang has made it to being the longest lasting horrific dictatorship since medieval times…