Fittingly, our story begins with a Chinese textile company that made prison uniforms. We don’t ordinarily think of Chinese prison-garment workers as overpaid, but then, some North Korean officials paid them a visit. The officials knew of a derelict factory in the extreme northeast of the workers’ paradise, where women would work 12 hours a day for 30 kilograms of rice a month.
For the women, this was still a good wage, especially compared to any wage that might be paid in North Korea’s inflated currency, and at a time when rice had a high market value. There was no shortage of applicants, and by September 2013, the factory had hired 125 women and 10 men, and started up. Then, a month later, payday rolled around:
However, just one month after start of operations a major problem arose. The payment of white rice was not made as promised. Most of the angry female workers refused to come to work.
The white rice for the “monthly wage payments” was to be brought in by the Chinese company, then handed over to the workers via the county officials. That was the agreement. However, the officials first withheld about half of the rice as “army rice” before paying the workers. That’s what made the workers so angry.
The officers, in a panic, visited the homes of the workers to encourage them to come to work.
“The female workers sent the officers packing, saying, ‘How can you expect us to come to work when you will not pay us properly? We will starve!’ In North Korea today, if promises are not kept, any one will leave the workplace at the factory in the same way” says Mr P. [Rimjin-gang]
The incident happened nearly two years ago, but Rimjin-gang held the story until recently “to ensure the safety of the reporter,” known as “Mr. P.” Shortly after the work stoppage, the Chinese investors withdrew from the project, and North Korea’s opening to the world slipped from our grasp once again.
Jiro Ishimaru, the founder of Rimjin-gang, who has been reporting on North Korea for over 20 years, says “this is the first time he has ever heard of something like this that might be called a group labour dispute.” In 2011, however, the Daily NK reported a work stoppage by a brigade of underfed soldiers at a uranium mine.
In my recent essay on “guerrilla engagement,” I wrote of using clandestine communications to empower and organize North Korean workers with clandestine labor unions. If labor organizations proliferated throughout North Korea, they could eventually organize nationwide work stoppages and strikes. Here is an incident where a clandestine labor organization formed locally and spontaneously. It isn’t hard to believe that with a little support, more North Koreans at other factories and mines would organize, too.