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North Korea Market Report: Rollerskates, Masikryeong Speed, and Labor Mobilization Certificates

August 10, 2013

Read in Korean

The latest on what’s happening on the ground in North Korea.

First off, ownership of roller-skates in North Korea has become the new yardstick for delineating between the rich and poor. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un’s new “Masikryeong Speed” has taken a page from his predecessors in an effort to mobilize the North Korean populace. Finally, in a two-pronged effort to clamp down on corruption and ensure a steady supply of labor, North Korean authorities have introduced “labor mobilization certificates” to ensure everyone does the work they are supposed to.

This article originally appeared on pages 38-39 of the July 2013 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of Nova Mercier.

North Korean citizens constructing living quarters in the Mansudae (만수대) district of Pyongyang (Yonhap)

Kim Jong Un’s directives and the growing gap between rich and poor

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (김정은) recently ordered the construction of roller-skating rinks in several areas around the country, including Pyongyang. Roller-skates have now become a new indicator of wealth in the country. Although initially promoted as an activity that would benefit the health of the common people, roller-skating has instead served to alienate North Koreans from one another.

According to a source inside North Korea, Kim Jong Un is encouraging the construction of roller-skating rinks in places like parks and recreational facilities in Pyongyang. The Korean Workers’ Party (KWP, 로동당) has also decreed that ordinary citizens should purchase their own skates (according to a recent Korean No Cut News article, skates can be rented at the rink from 1,000 to 3,000 North Korean won). Even school teachers are urging their pupils to somehow get hold of a pair.

Merchants have gotten wind of this push from above and have bought roller-stakes in bulk from Chinese traders. Roller-skates are now a common sight in North Korea’s markets. Yet the price of these roller-stakes is prohibitively high for the average citizen. A pair of decent skates cost anywhere from 120-150 Chinese yuan, or the equivalent of around 25 kilograms of rice.

The North Korean source reports that the ownership of roller-skates now delineates who is poor and who is rich. In most cases, ordinary North Koreans have no choice but to use second-hand skates once owned by the children of Party cadres. “Many kids pester their parents to buy them nice things, as they hate to be seen as comparatively worse-off than their peers,” says the source. “Many people are critical, saying ‘We can’t live under these pointless policies.'”

Surge in general discontent towards “Masikryeong Speed”

Kim Jong Un recently ordered the construction of a ski resort in Masikryeong (마식령), located in Wonsan, Gangwon province. Even soldiers have been mobilized to complete what is officially called the Masikryeong Ski Ground (마식령 스키장) project. Now, a new term has arisen from this project: “Masikryeong Speed” (마식령속도). Kim Jong Un has ordered that all production activity in every industrial facility and construction site should be conducted under the spirit of “Masikryeong Speed.”

The origins of “Masikryeong Speed” can be traced back to the Kim Il Sung era. North Korea has historically used propaganda to instill a positive attitude among citizens and soldiers mobilized to work on national construction projects. Kim Il Sung emphasized “Chollima Speed” (천리마속도) while Kim Jong Il promoted “Huichon Speed” (희천속도). Throughout these periods, workers were encouraged to undergo “speed battles” (속도전) and “production increases” (생산증대).

“During the Kim Jong Il era ‘Huichon Speed’ was introduced so that electricity could be supplied to the people,” says a source in North Korea. “Many reacted positively to the directive then, but not this time.” Indeed, as the North Korean government mobilizes its citizens for a wide range of projects, the authorities are facing growing dissatisfaction among ordinary North Koreans. Perhaps more than anything else, many North Koreans fail to see the meaning in constructing facilities which they themselves will never be able to enjoy. Many of the construction projects they are forced to work on include amusement parks, water parks and ski resorts and other entertainment facilities. Ultimately, these facilities are for the exclusive enjoyment of North Korean elites.

Authorities ban market activity for those without certificates of labor completion

The difficulties of ordinary North Koreans have worsened due to the tightening of control over the markets by the authorities. Those who earn their living through the markets in particular are shouldering a double burden as they are mobilized for rice planting, urban beautification and national construction projects.

A North Korean source reports that alongside increasing the period of mobilization for the populace, North Korean authorities have banned market activity for those without a “certificate of labor completion” (노력동원 확인증). The authorities appear to have instituted this new certificate for two reasons. First, the lack of raw materials and machinery in North Korea means that manpower is crucial for completing construction projects. The new certificate requirement guarantees the government a fixed level of labor for a certain period of time. Second, in the past many North Koreans avoided being mobilized for projects by bribing high level cadres. Now bribing officials will not be enough; North Koreans will have to obtain the certificate in order to do anything else.

As a result of these market restrictions, alleyway merchants (골목장사) and “grasshopper” merchants (메뚜기장사, merchants always on the move to avoid being arrested for peddling) are becoming increasingly more active than those working in more formal, fixed-location markets. “In March and April when the army was undergoing training, the controls and restrictions on the grasshopper markets were severe. But it’s not like that now,” says the source. “Even kids who can’t sell items in the market just go out into the street and sell things there. The side streets surrounding the main markets are packed with people.” The source reports that even children have grasped the fact that the state will not provide any rations or support. “Everyone is well aware that if you can’t engage in the market, you’ll have nothing to eat. You often see people working late into the night.”

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