DPRK's 70 Day Speed Battle Ends - What Did It All Mean?

In the run-up to the 7th Party Congress, widely seen as an important marker in the Kim Jong Un era, North Koreans were called upon to take part in a 70 day “speed battle”, ending May 2nd or 3rd. (The Congress is slated to start on the 6th.) Essentially, it's a mass mobilization of adults across the country to work on a variety of projects in nearly all sectors. Think of it as nationally mandated overtime. 

 "In Celebration of the 7th KWP Congress, Production Increase Competition Chart"  Photo by Joe Han

"In Celebration of the 7th KWP Congress, Production Increase Competition Chart" Photo by Joe Han

The “battle” component is a DPRK cultural expression: exhortations often use the term, drawing a link to the effort needed to win in an actual war. In 2013, they had a “harvest battle”, for example. Also, factories or other workplaces are often called “battle zones” or “battlefields”.

This speed battle had three main goals.

The first was increased production at state-owned enterprises. Thus, across the country you’ll see state-owned mines or factories with higher quotas than normal. Workers at these sites will have been working overtime and staff from other organizations will be pulled into some to help hit the targets.

The second is sped-up construction or beautification: trying to finish projects before May when possible and, in the capital especially, making sure everything looks tip-top ahead of the Party Congress.

Finally, there are mass performances to prepare for in Pyongyang also. A torch parade is clearly in the works, as are other events around the KWP Congress.

However, if you’re working for a company off of the state plan, you’ll also be putting in extra hours. This is perhaps because your company has been asked to contribute something extra for the big event, but also because everyone else is working overtime, also. It’s simply what you do.

 A woman rides past a a sign exhorting victory in the 70 day battle in Kaesong.  Photo by Joe Han

A woman rides past a a sign exhorting victory in the 70 day battle in Kaesong. Photo by Joe Han

During the past 70 days, the city-wide alarm that wafts dreamy music across Pyongyang has been sounding at 5 a.m. instead of the usual 6 a.m.. (And yes, you read that right: there’s and alarm clock for everyone.) Expats resident in Pyongyang speak of their local partners not getting home until 10 or 11 at night in order to fulfill their extra responsibilities.

This is, as you’d expect, is creating a tired citizenry that has been going all-out since late-March. The DPRK is still a social system that can get people to work hard to hit higher targets that the state sets. And though the numbers aren’t available to us, the longer work hours will likely be increasing production rates in a variety of fields, provided other key inputs are there also.

 Practicing in Kim Il Sung Square for a torch parade.  Photo by Joe Han

Practicing in Kim Il Sung Square for a torch parade. Photo by Joe Han

But it has also led to a bit of grumbling in one sector: retail. People aren’t going out and shopping or eating at restaurants in the numbers that they usually might and now down consumer-facing businesses are looking forward to the celebratory atmosphere that the Party Congress will bring.

It is interesting to note the psychological impact that the 70-day speed battle will have, also. After over two months of mental and physical fatigue, the whole country will be unwinding together, collectively exhaling, riveted to what’s going on in Pyongyang.

We'll be paying attention, too, of course.