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The 'slave labor' behind Kim Jong Un's new utopia

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The 'slave labor' behind Kim Jong Un's new utopia

The 'slave labor' behind Kim Jong Un's new utopia

A recent North Korean documentary showcases the country's 'youth brigade,' young student workers who work in often dangerous environments to carry out Kim Jong Un's vision.

State media is painting a patriotic picture, but human rights groups are calling it modern day slavery.

Grace Lee reports

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The 'slave labor' behind Kim Jong Un's new utopia

Young, patriotic, and ready to labour for the great leader.

This is the inspiring image of North Korea's 'youth brigade' that the state would like you to see.

The brigade is made up of young college-aged students recruited to do hard labour.

In an hour-long documentary created by state media, they enthusiastically toil through extreme weather and do dangerous work without safety equipment.

What they're building is Kim Jong Un's new 'socialist utopia' in a town called 'Samjiyon.'

It'll be a new economic hub near the Chinese border with apartments, hotels and even a ski resort.

It's one project in Kim's push to focus on the economy instead of missiles.

But human rights activists say despite the inspiring picture painted by the state, these workers live in slave-like conditions under the name of loyalty.

(SOUNDBITE) (Korean) DIRECTOR OF SEOUL-BASED RIGHTS GROUP 'OPEN NORTH KOREA', KWON EUN-KYOUNG, SAYING: "North Korea's brigade system is modern slavery.

They receive skimpy meals which don't even have basic nutrients." The students work more than 12 hours a day, without pay, for up to 10 years and the service is mandatory.

In return, they get better chances at entering a university or into the ruling Worker's Party.

Historically, the brigades were seen as some of the most loyal groups to the ruling Kim family.

But defectors say the state is now struggling to entice new recruits, because private markets in the North are on the rise and North Korea's new wealthy are paying their way out of the labour.

(SOUNDBITE) (Korean) NORTH KOREAN DEFECTOR AND FORMER BRIGADE MEMBER, CHO CHUNG-HUI, SAYING: "Nobody would go there if not for a party membership or education, which helps you land a better job.

But these days, you can make a lot more money from the markets, and people with money don't want to be brigade members." Those that can't afford a free pass are risking their lives to run away mid-service, according to defectors.

It's a dangerous gamble: if they're caught, martyrs face harsh punishment and are marked as traitors for life.

Through state TV, Kim Jong Un recently made a big and visible gesture in thanking the workers, part of a push to sell the brigade to young people.

According to one rights group's estimate, the total workforce, as of 2016, stands at about 400 thousand workers.




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