Anna Louise Strong

In North Korea: First Eye-Witness Report

With the Factory Workers

WHEN STRIKES OCCUR in the American zone of South Korea, one of the workers demands is usually for a Labor Code like that in the Soviet zone of North Korea. This naturally annoys the American Military Government, which sees in such strikes the work of the Communists. The demand, however, raises the question: What are the labor conditions in North Korea?

All the industrial workers I met in North Korea like to brag that they were the first workers in the Far East to enjoy a "fully modern labor law, with the eight-hour day, collective bargaining and social insurance." Their claim is not strictly correct for the Liberated Areas of China and Manchuria just over their border have an equally good labor code. Nonetheless the North

Koreans have the right to feel proud of their achievements. In one respect they can claim to surpass their Chinese brotherstheir well-equipped social insurance. The Japanese had more health resorts and summer villas in Korea than in China and the present Department of Labor has taken them over. The North Koreans have also a larger amount of publicly owned industry than the nearby Chinese, for Korea was highly industrialized by the Japanese.

Minister of Labor Oh Ki-sup, with whom I went on a four-day trip to health resorts, is one of those typical patriots who spent the greater part of his adult life in Japanese jails. At the age of sixteen he joined the underground movement for Korean independence. He has spent thirteen years and eight months in jail. In telling about his imprisonment he mentioned casually what seemed to me its most amazing feature. He had organized four revolutionary study circles inside four different jails and one outside at a time when he was in "solitary" confinement!

Minister Oh's account of how he did it throws sharp light on the inner weakness of imperialism. The facade of Japanese control seemed imposing and strong, but there were weak places in it ready to crack. The night watchmen and night warders in the jails were Koreans, because the Japanese conquerors disdained these least desirable jobs. Prisoner Oh played upon the patriotism and also upon the cupidity of these jailers. He would find some watchman who would take messages to his friends outside, either through anti-Japanese patriotism or for the money the outside friends would give. On this slender basis Oh built his study groups, one in each of the jails to which he was transferred. In all of this time Prisoner Oh was never permitted legally to have a pencil or a scrap of paper. He saved bits of toilet paper - of which he was allowed two pieces a day - and he had a tiny sliver of hidden lead that served as a pencil. Through such difficulties the revolutionary movement of the Korean patriots grew. Prisoner Oh managed to organize illegally right up to the day of national liberation.

As soon as the Red Army arrived and liberated Oh and the other political prisoners, the liberated men hastened to the factories and workshops where they were known - others of course were hurrying to the farms - and called workers' meetings. These workers' meetings at once took part in setting up city and provincial government; they also organized trade unions, first by factories, then by cities, counties and provinces.

There was a fury of organization throughout Korea in those first months of Japan's defeat. By November, 1945, the AllKorean Federation of Trade Unions was organized, covering both north and south. Four months later the Korean trade unions reluctantly divided themselves into a North Korean Labor Federation and a South Korean Labor Federation. "It was the American policy in South Korea that compelled this division," said Minister Oh.

"In the first months after Japan's defeat all Korea felt united," he continued. "The 38th parallel did not seem to be a barrier to the Koreans but only a temporary convenience of the occupying powers, until they should impose their peace terms on Japan. We Koreans organized our trade unions, farmers' unions, local governments on an all-Korean basis. The first headquarters of the All-Korean Federation of Trade Unions was at Seoul, in South Korea, while North Korea had only a branch office. Then the American Army began to suppress trade unions in the south. The chairman of the All-Korean Federation was imprisoned in Seoul. Meanwhile in the north the trade unions grew rapidly, operated openly, had collective agreements with all factories, took part in the production plans for industry and put up labor candidates for government. In the south they had to work on a semilegal or a completely underground basis. These different conditions forced a separation of the trade unions into northern and southern federations."

There were some 430,000 workers in North Korea, of whom 380,000 were members of trade unions, according to Minister Oh. This number does not include seasonal workers such as fishermen, lumbermen and building workers who farm in summer and take odd jobs in winter. Nor does it include farm laborers, because the land reform turned these into farmers owning their own land. The largest trade union is that of miners with 52,000 members, then transport workers and chemical workers with some 45,000 each. About one hundred thousand belong to unions of white collar workers including office workers, teachers, sanitary workers and so on.

"What do you do about unemployment?" I asked the minister. "There isn't any," he replied. "There is, on the contrary, a great shortage of workers because we have so much reconstruction to do and we are expanding our industry. We need thirteen million more work-days than we can count on for just the reconstruction of roads and bridges. This means that in this reconstruction alone we could absorb 45,000 more workers."

Many workers, said Minister Oh, were migrating from the American zone of South Korea into North Korea because of the unemployment in the South and the better chance of jobs in the North.


The labor conditions of North Korea are built on publicly owned industries. The nationalization of industry was a relatively simple problem for 90 per cent of all big industry belonged to Japanese concerns. The Japanese made of Korea a military base against China and the USSR. They constructed strategic railways and highways, a powerful war industry and big power plants that supplied not only Korea but part of Manchuria with electric power.

All of this Japanese-owned industry was seized by the Russian victors and then turned over to the Koreans. By a decree passed August 10, 1946, by the North Korean provisional government, all industry "belonging to Japanese and traitors" was nationalized. There was nobody to oppose this decree for the Japanese and their supporters had either gone back to Japan or fled south to the American zone. The Korean people of the north thus came into possession of the banks, railways, communications and 90 per cent of all big industry more simply and with much less turmoil than usually attends such nationalization.

Two serious problems at once confronted the industries. First, all industry had been hitched to Japan. All Korean plants produced parts and semi-finished products that were sent to Japan for completion. There was not a single finished product in all Korean industry. Now that Korea had become independent, her industry must be remodelled and reconverted from a war industry serving Japan to a peace-time industry serving the needs of the Koreans.

The second problem was posed by the fact that the Japanese destroyed everything they could before they surrendered. The Korean workers' underground does not seem to have been strong enough to prevent this. The Japanese wrecked 80 per cent of all locomotives on the railways, and damaged the rolling stock, repair shops and even the right of way. Some 64 mines were flooded and 178 were otherwise made unusable. All blast furnaces and coke batteries and most of the open-hearth furnaces in the country's iron and steel works were destroyed by the simple process of letting them cook with the charge inside.

I visited, for instance, the largest iron and steel works in the country, the Kensiko Steel Works, located a short distance north of Pyongyang. Under the Japanese it had three big blast furnaces, three open-hearth furnaces and employed seven or eight thousand workers making pig iron, steel, sheet steel, rolled steel and coke for the Mitsubishi concern of Japan. At the time of my visit there were some 6,800 workers but most of these were still engaged in rebuilding the works. All the three blast furnaces and the three open-hearth furnaces, they told me, had been spoiled by allowing the molten metal in them to cool and harden. When I asked why the Korean workers had not prevented this, they replied that the Koreans had held unskilled jobs and had not been in charge of the technical processes.


The big chemical works in Jeungnam was, by contrast, saved by its workers. This plant was the largest industrial enterprise in Korea, employing 20,000 workers. Among other things, they made one of the constituent elements of the atom-bomb on which the Japanese were experimenting. When the Japanese surrendered, they planned to blow this factory up with its own explosives. There was, however, an alert underground Korean trade union in the chemical works. The workers discovered the plot, and expelled the Japanese from the works in an armed struggle lasting four hours. They then located the explosives, which had been set with time fuses, and threw them into the sea.

"If those had gone off, they would have wiped out not only the entire works, but a city of 150,000 people," I was told by a group of those chemical workers whom I met in a seaside health resort.

They added that, as soon as the Japanese were expelled, the trade union came out into the open, set up guards over the factory and took an active part in electing the local government.

The new labor code was passed June 24, 1946, some six weeks before the industries were nationalized. It provided the eighthour-day-seven in hazardous work-and two weeks vacation with pay for ordinary workers, but one month vacation for youths and those in hazardous trades. (Under the Japanese the work day sometimes ran to fifteen or sixteen hours and there were no paid vacations.) The new law forbade child labor, gave women equal pay for equal work and introduced a safety code.

One of the most appreciated innovations was the Social Insurance. It began to function in January of 1947. Nearly 200,000 workers were given free medical treatment in the first six months of the year. Many houses and summer villas formerly owned by the Japanese were turned over to the Ministry of Labor and made available to the Korean workers through the Social Insurance. By summer of 1947, the time of my visit, the Social Insurance possessed 85 summer villas with 1,400 beds, and expected to give free vacations to 25,000 workers during the season.

Many workers' families also received new houses through the trade unions, for the homes of the former Japanese owners, managers, and technical staff were turned over to the workers and distributed through the unions to those who made special records or had special needs.


I spent four days in a health resort of the Social Insurance. I went swimming three times in one day on one of the finest beaches in the world. It was on the east coast and the water was warm with gently sloping sands and the charm of a tropical beach without the dangerous sea animals and plants of the tropics. Two years earlier this beach with its villas belonged to the ruling Japanese; Koreans were not permitted to use it. Today the villas belong to the Ministry of Labor and are used through the Social Insurance for the vacations of industrial workers.

Five shy but self-possessed women came to my room when I asked for an interview with some women workers. There were two weavers from the Hamheung Textile Mills, a young spinner from the silk filature mill of Pyongyang, and a fifteen-year-old orphan-she looked barely twelve-who lived in a factory dormitory, worked six hours daily in the factory and went for two hours to the factory school.

One woman of thirty-six sat demurely looking at the ocean in a figured white silk gown. I postponed interviewing her, for she looked such a typical housewife that I thought her the wife of some official or engineer. When I asked her what she did, I got a shock.

"I am a gold miner," she said, "working three hundred feet underground. I am a skilled worker; I operate a drill."

"Isn't that heavy work?" I asked.

She smiled a bit apologetically and replied that it was. "But not as heavy as the work I used to do. Under the Japanese I loaded ore and pushed the cars, working thirteen hours or more a day. Now, as pneumatic drill operator, I work only seven hours and get very good pay."

Lee Mai Hwa was her name. She had worked many years in the mines. But she had only been a driller for one year; under the Japanese rule women were not allowed to learn the higher skills. She was proud of her job.

"How did you get this work?" I asked. "Did you replace a man?"

"I got my job because we are expanding production and because I studied the work. Under the Japanese we had only 1,000 workers in our mine, but now we have 2,500." Among the 2,500 workers, Lee said, there were 206 women but only two of these were drillers. Lee Mai Hwa was the first.

Lee was proud of her wages. They are twice what her husband gets. He works for the same mine but on the surface. He sharpens drills. He makes at most 2,000 yen a month.

"But I made 4,000 last month," bragged Lee. "For women now get equal pay for equal work and my work is very skilled ... I also set many records. Formerly a driller drilled one car of ore a day, but once, for a record, I drilled twenty cars in one day! It takes four and even six loaders to load all the ore I drill."

"You must be the head of your family," I commented.

"That's what my husband says," replied the complacent Lee.

"Is he jealous?"

"No, he's proud," she assured me.

I inquired into her standard of living. Just what can she buy with the 6,000 yen that she and her husband make?

Under the Japanese, said Lee, the food was very bad. "Now I get rationed food, 750 grams of rice a day for my ration and the same amount for my husband. We are both first category workers." This rationed rice costs only five yen a kilo. So the basic rice food costs only 230 yen a month from the family wage of 6,000 yen.

"We have a good house now," Lee added. "It formerly belonged to a Japanese official. It has a warmed floor." (This is the Korean way of heating good houses.) "We have two big rooms and four closet-rooms and a little hall."

"Did you ever have a nice silk dress like that under the Japanese?" I asked.

"Oh, never," smiled Lee with a touch of amusement, stroking her white, silk gown.

Lee also told me about the general elections held in her town where the candidate was "a worker from our mine." But this I have given in the chapter on government and elections.


The modern labor law and the nationalization of industry aroused loyalty and energetic devotion among North Korea's workers. When they understood that the industries were now the property of the Korean people, they began to work like mad to repair them.

At the Seisein Spinning Mills the workers contributed nearly 9,000 hours of voluntary labor to repair the mill. The Tonchen wharves were rebuilt nearly 200 days before the date called for in the plan.

At the Kensiko Steel Works they introduced to me proudly two "labor heroes," Chi Sam Zon and Lee Sam Zon, who had remained in the shop for thirteen days so that the rolling mill would not stop.

"We Koreans have very few technicians or skilled workers," they explained, "so we had to stay on the job until we could train in substitutes."

"What is the biggest change in your lives made by the liberation?" I asked a group of workers in the Kensiko Works. They discussed it among themselves and combined on these three answers.

"First: Formerly we worked thirteen hours a day and had no time to think; now we work eight hours and we know all kinds of things about the world.

"Second: Formerly we ate no rice but only husks of soya beans; now we have a good rice ration of a pound and a half daily and we live in better houses too.

"Third: Formerly we had no voice in anything; now we have a voice in management through our trade union and a voice in government through our votes."

These are the changes that have made the industrial workers of North Korea a solid bulwark of the new regime.

Next: 6. And Now?