Background Briefing

II. Background

North Korea’s laws, including its labor laws, are based on the country’s state ideology of “juche,” or self-reliance, socialism, communism and the policies of the Workers’ Party. Guiding principles or instructions by former President Kim Il Sung have legal force that supersedes the constitution or laws. North Korea’s labor laws are composed of the Socialist Labor Law and relevant provisions in the constitution and the penal code, in addition to laws concerning foreign investors and businesses.5 The state has full control over the labor market, and the law permits only labor organizations sanctioned and controlled by the state. Under North Korean law there is no concept of an employment contract, as workers are assigned to their jobs by state labor administrative agencies under the control of the Workers’ Party.6 The state is responsible for providing basic services such as food,7 healthcare, education and housing, and in return for their labor workers are paid a small amount of remuneration in cash or coupons to cover items such as supplementary food, clothes, or furniture.

The KIC Labor Law was drafted by the North Korean government after consulting with Hyundai Asan Corporation and was then adopted by the Standing Committee of the (North Korean) Supreme People’s Assembly.8 It has not been publicly disclosed whether the North Korean government consulted with workers in drafting the law. The KIC Management Committee, a North Korean organization with technical staff from South Korea,is in charge of operational support at the KIC, including enforcing the KIC law, monitoring compliance, and punishing violators, under the supervision of North Korea’s Central Special District General Bureau for Kaesong Industrial Complex (the General Bureau).9 According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, North Korea’s labor laws apply to employment conditions in the KIC in the event that the KIC Labor Law is silent on a particular matter.10

North Korea is a party to four main international human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),11 the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR),12 the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW),13 and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).14 All provide important workers’ rights protections. As a party to these international human rights treaties, North Korea has a legal obligation to protect these rights. Both the ICCPR and ICESCR establish workers’ right to freedom of association (which includes the right of collective bargaining),15 and ban discrimination against people based on their race, color, sex, language, religion or social origin.16 Furthermore, the CEDAW directly bans employment and workplace sex discrimination and violence against women, including sexual harassment.17 The ICESCR and the CRC prohibit dangerous or hazardous work for children under the age of 18.18

The ILO conventions form the core of international standards on workers’ rights, but North Korea is not a member of the ILO.

Although Kaesong is North Korean territory, South Korea also has a responsibility as a member of the OECD to ensure that South Korean corporations respect international labor standards as laid out in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.19 South Korea is among the 39 countries that have pledged to adhere to the guidelines, which state that enterprises should “respect the human rights of those affected by their activities consistent with the host government’s international obligations and commitments,” “respect the right of their employees to be represented by trade unions and other bona fide representatives of employees,” “contribute to the effective abolition of child labor,” and “not discriminate against their employees with respect to employment or occupation on such grounds as race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin.” The guidelines also state that enterprises should provide facilities and information to employees that may be needed for the negotiation of meaningful and effective collective agreements and enable authorized representatives of their employees to bargain collectively.20 The guidelines establish state responsibilities, asserting that “governments wish to encourage the widest possible observance of the Guidelines,” and that “adhering to the Guidelines will promote them and encourage their use.”21

5 Moon Moo-gi, Assessing Outlook of North Korea’s Labor Law Changes through Analysis of Chinese Legal Changes  (Seoul: Korea Labor Institute, 2002) pp. 165-170.

6 Article 33 of the North Korean Labor Law reads, “The state shall strictly enforce the principle of eight hours of labor, eight hours of rest and eight hours of study in workers’ daily labor structure. The authorities, management and social collectives should regularize workers’ labor, normalize their study and guarantee their rest by properly combining labor, rest and study.” Chongko Choi, North Korean Laws, (Seoul: Pakyoungsa Publishing Co., 2001) p. 364.

7 In reality, most North Koreans are forced to find food on their own, as the state food distribution system broke down during the food crisis in the 1990s. Despite improvements in overall food production and foreign aid in recent years, many North Koreans still suffer from hunger. See Human Rights Watch, A Matter of Survival: The North Korean Government’s Control of Food and Risk of Hunger, vol. 18, no. 3(C), May 2006,

8 The Supreme People’s Assembly is the legislative branch of the North Korean government. The Standing Committeehas the legal authority to review and adopt laws, abolish laws, and offer official interpretation of laws, among other duties. Chung Suk-hong, Comparative Study of North and South Korea, (Seoul: People&People Publishing Co., 1999) pp. 92-97.

9 The KIC Management Committee is made up of about 50 South Korean civilian experts on law, health, industrial safety, accounting, and similar issues. A few North Korean officials also work for the Management Committee, but Human Rights Watch has not been able to ascertain how they are selected. Some 80 other North Koreans, including cleaners, bus drivers and photographers also work for the committee. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with a Ministry of Unification official, Seoul, August 23, 2006.

10 Human Rights Watch interview with a Ministry of Unification official, Seoul, August 2006.

11 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March, 23, 1976, acceded to by the DPRK on April 10, 1990.

12 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N.GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 49, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 993 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force January 3, 1976, acceded to by the DPRK on April 10, 1990.

13 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted December 18, 1979, G.A. res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/46, entered into force September 3, 1981, ratified by the DPRK on December 27, 1984.

14 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted November 20, 1989, G.A. res. 44/25, annex, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49 (1989), entered into force September 2, 1990, ratified by the DPRK on November 20, 1991.

15 ICCPR art. 22 and ICESCR art. 8.

16 Art. 2 of both the ICCPR and ICESCR.

17 See in particular CEDAW arts. 2, 5 and 11, and General Recommendation No. 19, adopted at the CEDAW Committee’s 11th Session, 1992,

18 ICESCR art. 10 and CRC art. 32.

19 The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are recommendations to international business for conduct in such areas as labor, environment, consumer protection and the fight against corruption. The recommendations are made by the adhering governments and, although they are not binding, governments are committed to promoting their observance. Revised OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises were adopted on the occasion of the OECD's annual Council meeting at ministerial level in Paris on June 27, 2000. The full text can be found at The OECD Annual Report on the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises: 2005 Edition (Paris: OECD, 2005), can be found at,2340,en_33873108_33873555_35845165_1_1_1_1,00.html.

20 OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, pp. 21-22.

21 Ibid., p. 18.