Speed Battles (속도전) or time bound, mass socialist construction campaigns have been a recurrent feature of the North Korean political economy since the very beginning. Their centrality to the regime is measured by the Constitutional importance ordained to them. With the regime launching such “battles” as recently as till the 2021 Party Congress, it is interesting to reflect on the impact of one such recent “Speed Battle” which was claimed to unleash a “new heyday of the socialist construction“, the Mallima Movement.
These “speed campaigns” emulate the Stakhanovite movement of the Soviet Union of the mid 1930s. Named after a worker Alexey Stakhanov [who was known to mine 102 tonnes of coal in just 5 hours 45 minutes (14 times his quota)], it was believed that if trained in the ‘correct’ political ideology, no physical limitations could constrain human capabilities. Moreover, it reflected the ‘superiority’ of the socialist economic system vis à vis the capitalist profit based system, provided the former was ‘ideologically liberating’ while the latter was believed to be the source of all malaise. The workers are not paid as the idea is to replace material incentives with moral and ideological incentives where people would wilfully contribute to the socialist economy without any expectations of monetary returns.
This Soviet influence is understood in combination with Kim il-Sung’s idea of Juche (주체) or ‘Self-reliance’ which forms the primary ideological fixation of the regime.
Such campaigns are meant not just to act as catalysts for economic growth but also as campaigns to build internal cohesion and affinity to the leadership and the Party.
Article 19 of the Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) defines North Korea as an “independent and national economy”. Article 13 claims to follow the ‘mass line approach’ in production where the State and the leaders are obligated to include the opinions of the masses in making decisions which should reflect the larger good. Under Articles 13 and 14, the Constitution mandates the State to launch mass movements in order to “accelerate the building of socialism to the maximum”.
The Rise of Mallima
The Mallima movement (마리마 운동) was launched in 2016 by North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. On his visit to the Pyongyang Kim Jong Suk Textile Mill, Kim fondly remembered the “great achievements of the Chollima Movement” and encouraged workers and party members to ”work and struggle with the spirit of Mallima”.
It is similar in orientation and goals to the Chollima Movement which was launched under Kim il-Sung’s regime in 1953.
Like Chollima (천리마), Mallima (만리마) refers to a mythical horse which is believed to fly at an incredibly fast speed. While Chollima could fly 1000 kilometres a day, Mallima possessed 10 times the strength and is believed to fly 10,000 kilometres a day. Workers and Peasants were expected to imbibe this spirit and hasten the development of the socialist economy. Mallima was believed to fly past the economic troubles of the age and even leave Chollima behind.
The North Korean economy has been badly hit by several factors. While the Stalinist socialist economic model has failed to secure economic growth, sanctions and trade embargoes imposed by the United States and the United Nations owing to Pyongyang’s nuclear development programme has not only isolated it but has also depleted whatever little was achieved in the earlier periods.
In 2015, a year before the Mallima Movement was launched, North Korea’s economy fell sharpest in 8 years when the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell a real 1.1% , the first fall since 2010 and the sharpest decline since 2007. All sectors except construction declined.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, China has been North Korea’s biggest trade and aid partner. The Mallima movement stood as an attempt to boost self-reliant economic growth.
Mallima became a part of Kim’s five year economic plan which was launched at the 2016 Party Congress, the first five year plan in the past 36 years.
Kim enlisted the goals of the plan as follows: development of infrastructure, railways and metal industries; export of minerals like magnesite (without any plan to evade the stringent sanctions); a switch to renewable sources of energy such as hydropower to counter the looming energy crisis and engage with the international economy while abiding by the Juche ideology.
“Mallima” hence, became the common chant across industries, from steel mills to cement factories.
How far could the Mallima fly?
The movement did result in certain remarkable achievements. The very next year on April 17, 2017, the Ryomyong Street was unveiled. Covering an area of 900 thousand square metres, the street houses several high rise buildings with over 70 stories and dozens of kindergartens. According to the Land and Housing Institute in South Korea, it employed around 8 million workers, with 30 thousand working a double shift everyday. The 8 lane street which stretches over 3 kilometres from the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to the Tower of Immortality, has been dubbed by the regime as a “miraculous creation”.
Furthermore, in 2016, the North Korean economy attained a 17 year high growth with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) climbing to 3.9%.
However, this breakneck speed has come at a huge cost for the common people. The haste in construction does not allow the cement or concrete to dry and strengthen which might lead to accidents, one such recent example being the collapse of a newly built residential building in the Songhwa County, South Hwanghae province during the Mallima movement.
Moreover, it has also led to exhaustion among the people. The main source of labour is the Speed Battle Youth Assault Troops, a force of young people who are expected to actively participate in the Socialist construction campaigns. College Students, Soldiers and Common people are also expected to work. Those who cannot contribute physically must provide monetary or material aid. Such campaigns are not just physically exploitative but also deviate people from their personal goals and ambitions which too remain restrained under a strict central control.
The Dusk falls, again
The achievements of the Mallima movement could not sustain for long. In 2021, Kim Jong-un accepted that his economic policies including the five year plan had “failed in almost all areas”.
Even though Pyongyang claimed to have not reported a single case of coronavirus, the pandemic has had a crippling effect on its economy as strict nationwide lockdowns and border closure for trade and travel were imposed. The meagre 0.4% growth which was achieved in 2019 has been reversed. South Korea’s Central bank, the Bank of Korea (BOK), which publishes the most reliable data on the North Korean economy, reported that Pyongyang’s GDP contracted by 4.5% in 2020 while industrial output declined from 28% to 5.9% and agricultural output, fisheries and forestry sector declined by 7.6%.
North Korea is also at the cusp of probably the worst food crisis in its history. Before the pandemic, 40% of the population was said to be suffering from hunger and malnourishment. As per United Nations reports, the situation has worsened since the pandemic. Many lost their jobs and over 60% live in absolute poverty. In April 2021, Kim indicated the worsening situation by calling the citizens to “prepare for another Arduous March” , referring to the long period of recurring natural calamities, famine and food crisis of the 1990s.
The sharp fall in foreign trade has also led to a massive price hike in fuel and food commodities. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 68% of an average North Korean’s diet is composed of cereals, tubers and roots, none of which were imported last year from China, which constitutes 90% of Pyongyang’s international trade. The food shortage amounted to 860,000 tonnes in 2021.
The Way Ahead
Though the “speed battles” such as the Mallima Movement have led to piecemeal benefits, they have failed to heal the cracks that have developed in the Stalinist command economic structure. In order to shake off the inertia inmoribund economy, the North Korean regime needs to bring in drastic reforms and open the economy in a phased manner. Moreover, both North Korea and the United States as well as other nuclear states must reach an agreement to implement confidence building measures and ensure denuclearisation in a gradual but committed manner as lifting of sanctions are important for Pyongyang to integrate itself with the international economy and ensure a better life for its citizens.
[Photo by Lǔbān / Wikimedia Commons]
Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies at University of Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.