North Korean authorities have suspended classes at a number of universities to enlist college students in construction work ahead of the 100th anniversary of former leader Kim Il Sung’s birth, according to sources both inside and outside of the country.
Sources said the projects include the construction of 100,000 homes and the completion of the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, both of which have been scheduled for completion by 2012, when leader Kim Jong Il has pledged that North Korea will become a “strong and prosperous nation.”
According to a source in Beijing, a number of Chinese college students who attend school in Pyongyang have returned home because their universities are empty.
“They said that their universities are closed because the students have been mobilized for construction work,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Other Chinese students who have remained in North Korea have also confirmed this,” he said.
Another source from Shenyang city in China’s Liaoning province, on the border with North Korea, said that North Korean students had been mobilized for the construction work, but that Chinese students had been exempt.
U.S. citizen who visited Kim Il Sung University and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in the capital two weeks ago, said the campuses were eerily quiet.
“My visit to the two universities was part of an official tour, but the campuses were empty. There weren’t any students there,” the source said.
“North Korean authorities didn’t explain where they were,” he said, adding that he had hoped to meet with students to discuss their curriculum.
Multiple sources within North Korea have also confirmed the policy to suspend college classes so that students can assist with miscellaneous jobs at the project locations.
One source located in the border area near China said that college students have been put to work landscaping the areas surrounding the construction sites.
The source said that construction of the 100,000 homes had been delayed due to a shortage of electricity and construction materials, but that authorities expected it to be completed by April next year.
He said that the 330-meter (1,080-foot) Ryugyong Hotel, which has sat unfinished in the capital for more than 20 years, will require a huge number of college students to assist in its construction if the government realistically hopes to complete it by April.
Construction on the Ryugyong Hotel began in 1987 and was suspended in 1992 due to funding problems, but was restarted in April 2008 under the supervision of the Orascom Group of Egypt, which has invested heavily in the North Korean mobile telephony and construction industries. The hotel is the largest structure in North Korea.
Suh Jae-Pyeong, the executive director of the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea in Seoul, said North Korean authorities achieve two goals by using college students to assist in the construction.
“In North Korea, most huge construction projects depend on labor. That’s why they have mobilized the college students to help,” Suh said.
“But the government also rationalizes the directive by saying that the students must ‘arm themselves with the ideology of the common worker,’ thus eliminating their bourgeoisie thoughts.”
According to sources, North Korean authorities have employed university students a number of times in the past to assist in large-scale national projects.
In 1989, when North Korea hosted the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students, universities were suspended for six months across the country so that students could assist in preparations for the event.
A North Korean defector told RFA that as a student of the Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang, classes had been suspended while he and his classmates helped to add buttressing materials to a highway connecting Pyongyang and Nampo, 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of the capital.
“Specific sections were allotted to different universities and each group had to work for six months,” said the defector, who currently lives in South Korea.
Sources said that North Korean authorities have been mobilizing students to assist in construction projects since the 1960s.
At that time, Kim Jong Il, while a student at Kim Il Sung University, was mobilized to help expand a road between downtown Pyongyang and the city’s northeastern Yongseong district—a distance of about 16 kilometers (10 miles).
Later, sources say, Kim set forth his experience as a model for student participation in construction projects.
Reported by Min Suk Choi for RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Bong H. Park. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.