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North Korea: Economic System Built on Forced Labor

New Testimonies Say Even Children Must Work or Face Detention Camps

(New York) – The North Korean government continues to require forced, uncompensated labor from workers, including even schoolchildren and university students, Human Rights Watch said today. In recent interviews with Human Rights Watch, North Korean defectors say they have faced years of work for either no wages or symbolic compensation and either had to pay bribes or face severe punishments if they did not report for work at assigned workplaces.

Defectors reported to Human Rights Watch that they were required to work at an assigned workplace after completing school. The effective collapse of much of the North Korean economy means that many of these jobs are either unpaid or provide minimal substitute compensation in the form of food or other rations. Failure to report to an assigned job for those who try to earn money in other ways can result in being sent to a forced labor camp for six months to as long as two years.

“The harsh reality faced by North Korean workers and students is unpaid forced labor and exploitation,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Those who refuse face being sent to forced labor camps where they must do hard labor, face physical abuse from guards, and are treated as less than human.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed approximately 65 defectors in South Korea and Thailand over the past six months. One female North Korean defector who left North Korea in December 2009 told Human Rights Watch that “anyone who quits his job … is legally punished for the reason of being unemployed …” and will be “taken to the forced labor camp for between three to six months. Anyone who doesn’t work is assumed to be a criminal in North Korea.” Another male who escaped from North Korea in March 2011 said that “… if you are placed somewhere [to work], you must go there without question” and “it is impossible to refuse working because you didn’t like it, it’s compulsory without a doubt.”

Another defector told Human Rights Watch “After I finished school, the authorities forced me to work at the government mine but it’s far away from my home. I had to take care of my sick father because my mother had died … so I had to bribe the authorities so they would put me in the ceramics factory nearby … then I was forced to labor at the ceramics factory …”

Failing to report to work can result in physical punishment at the hands of work-place managers. A defector told Human Rights Watch “The factory manager would summon me and beat me and curse at me because I didn’t go to work. Many people saw me getting beaten…. I told them I didn’t come to work because I didn’t have anything to eat…The more I talked, the angrier they got, and they kicked and beat me…It was not just me, it would happen to other people as well. If a person did not come to work, the authorities would go to their home to find them. They would beat them severely and curse at them, saying ‘Why didn’t you come to work?’”

North Korean defectors said that a lack of pay for work means economic survival for them and their families depends on their ability to do their own informal business. For this, bribes must be paid to local officials and to the enterprise manager to release a person from his or her daily work requirement for time to start their own business, such as home production, informal selling of goods at local markets, or itinerant trading between provinces or even across the border into China. One female defector told Human Rights Watch, “There were no rations so I presented some money to the company [where she worked] and started a business. Unemployed persons are supposed to go to the forced labor camp…so I constantly paid a certain amount of money to the company while I secretly ran a business…”

“North Korean government officials force people to work for free and don’t give them enough to eat, and then extort them when people try to organize other ways to survive” said Robertson. “This is truly a predatory regime, with an economic system built on exploitation and abuse.”

Article 31 of North Korea’s constitution clearly prohibits child labor while also setting the minimum age for children to work at 16. Yet parents told Human Rights Watch that children in secondary school studied in the morning but were regularly sent for unpaid school-organized work details in the afternoon. A former teacher who fled North Korea in 2011 told Human Rights Watch that, “I saw one teacher who would teach in the morning only and bring the students who were 11 or 12 years old to do outside work…in the afternoon. The kinds of work students did were planting, repairing roads, participating in the construction of a swimming pool…students would have lectures until 1 p.m. and then they suffered from [these] kinds of heavy labor….”

Another former student told Human Rights Watch “When I was between 11 and 15 years old I had to work on the government farm almost every day… We finished class at 1 p.m. and had to rush back home to eat lunch because the school didn’t provide food for the students. The school would announce that we’d have to meet back at the school field and bring our own farm tools. They forced everyone, even the small children, to work. In the morning the teacher would instruct the students what jobs they must do during the day and what tools they needed. I felt bad because this didn’t benefit our family and I had many responsibilities to do for my family but the government forced me to work for them. I was always very exhausted as a child.”

Research in 2009 by the Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights found that teachers and school administrators forced students to work in a variety of situations, including gathering foodstuffs for re-sale from mountainous areas, cutting down trees for use by the schools, collecting valuable raw materials according to a quota and submitting them for recycling as an alleged part of a government campaign, and working in agriculture on state-run farms. Students start working during middle-school years, when they are 11 years old, though in poorer provinces in the north, students are expected to be working as early as age 8 or 9.  

These reports are consistent with the findings of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which in 2009 stated that North Korean children “allegedly engage, as part of their schooling, in work which by far exceeds vocational education goals and is physically highly demanding.”

“While the North Korean government puts on grand shows of children dancing and performing in synchronized pageants for the world to see, the daily reality for many children is grinding, forced labor made worse by a lack of necessary food,” said Robertson.

The accounts of pervasive forced labor, and punishments for failure to comply with it, are corroborated by a 2009 study by the Korean Institution for National Unification (KINU).  Based on refugee reports, KINU found that North Korean authorities operate a network of jip-kyul-so (collection center) and ro-dong-dan-ryeon-dae (labor training centers) camps that hold people for a variety of so-called crimes, including absence from scheduled work or training, travel without permission, overstaying a travel permission, including cross-border travel to China where authorities are convinced the person was not attempting to go to South Korea, and other crimes.

Human Rights Watch called for North Korea to join the International Labor Organization (ILO), which would commit the government to follow the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which commits member states to eradicate forced labor, child labor, and respect the right to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. North Korea is one of few countries worldwide that are not members of the ILO and therefore do not comply with internationally recognized ILO standards.

“North Korea should end its holdout and join the International Labor Organization as a first clear step to eradicating forced labor,” said Robertson. “Adopting international standards will also steer the way to end child labor and ensure that childhood is a time for nurturing and learning – instead of toil and abuse.”

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