(Seoul) – On October 10, 2015, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Worker’s Party of Korea, North Korea fundamentally fails to respect labor rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The North Korea government’s systematic and pervasive use of forced labor from ordinary citizens and prisoners to control its people and sustain its economy show how abuses are a central part of the government’s strategy to maintain power.

“There couldn’t be a clearer contrast between the fiction of a North Korean proletarian paradise and the reality of the government’s system that forces people to work for free to build its economy,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “If Pyongyang wants to really celebrate its founding party, it should stop its predatory exploitation of its people’s labor.”

North Koreans hold Workers' Party flags during a mass performance in Pyongyang on July 26, 2013. 

© 2013 Reuters

The North Korean government imposes onerous and abusive forced labor upon much of its entire population, so a significant majority of North Koreans must perform forced labor at some point during their lives. North Korean students told Human Rights Watch that at some point their schools forced them to work for free on farms twice a year, for one month at a time, during ploughing and seeding, and again at harvest time. The effects of forced labor on students included physical and psychological injuries, malnutrition, exhaustion, and growth deficiencies.

Prisoners in North Korea’s political prisons, “reform through labor” camps, and short-term detention facilities face back-breaking forced labor in difficult and dangerous conditions, sometimes in winter elements without proper clothing or adequate housing. Prisoners enter this forced labor regimen weakened by near starvation level food rations and little or no medical care. They work in logging camps, mines, and farms without protective equipment, overseen by guards who use physical and psychological abuse to compel the work, and inflict sexual abuse. 

Ordinary North Korean workers also do not have the freedom to choose their job. Both men and unmarried women from cities and rural areas who have ended their studies are required to work at enterprises to which the government has assigned them. Although they are in theory entitled to a salary, in many cases these enterprises are not actually able to compensate them for their work. These workers are not free to change their jobs and must invariably work in sideline jobs to make money to survive.

“Forced labor in North Korea has become so common that it’s no exaggeration to say it dominates the lives of ordinary citizens on a daily basis,” Robertson said. “This is a hidden human rights crisis in North Korea that has been overlooked for far too long.”

North Korea is one of the few countries in the world that is not a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which has the responsibility for developing labor rights standards and monitoring compliance of governments with those standards. Human Rights Watch said North Korea should join the ILO and comply with the requirements of all ILO members 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. As a member, North Korea could also ratify ILO conventions 29 and 105 that set out clear standards and requirements for eliminating the use of forced labor, and seek technical assistance from the ILO to fulfill its obligations under the conventions.

Forced labor dominates the lives of ordinary citizens on a daily basis. This is a hidden human rights crisis in North Korea that has been overlooked for far too long.

Phil Robertson

Asia deputy director

Forced labor has been used as a form of political coercion since the establishment of the Worker’s Party of Korea, but in recent years it also has become an economic backbone. After North Korea’s government-run food distribution system collapsed between 1993 and 1995, the country faced a severe famine that provoked despair and mass starvation. A still unknown number of North Koreans – estimates range from several hundred thousand to 3.5 million – died from starvation between 1994 and 1998, the most acute phase of the crisis that became known as the Arduous March.

The famine compelled North Koreans to permit small-scale private commercial activities, known as jangsa, or dealings with the marketplace, for the first time. Alongside private citizens, government agencies including the party, the army, prisons, the police, state-owned companies, and schools and universities could no longer rely on government budgets and had to participate in the semi-official, parallel ‘grey’ economy to survive. As a result, state agencies began to regularly use forced labor to cover their costs.

A former prisoner from the Chongori kyohwaso (prison camp) who was in charge of the camp’s production planning between 2001 and 2007 told Human Rights Watch that “the number of prisoners was allocated in all prisons in the country according to the number of days of labor per person needed for production.” The kyohwaso (translated as “place to improve through reeducation”) are detention facilities operated by the police and holding political and criminal offenders serving lengthy sentences of “reform through labor.”

In February 2014, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea revealed that the North Korean government has committed systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations that constituted crimes against humanity. Abuses documented included enslavement, extermination, murder, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. The commission found ordinary prison camps “operate mines, factories, farms and logging camps by extracting forced labor from their inmates. The profits of these ventures do not seem to be reinvested in the prisons. Prisoners produce more food in quantity and variety than is provided to them.” It also found that “force labor of prisoners must also be regarded as a form of political coercion, since it is systematically coupled with compulsory daily indoctrination sessions focusing on the achievements and teachings of the ruling Kim family.”

This reality underscores the importance of ongoing UN Security Council engagement on the human rights situation in North Korea, including through conducting a formal discussion on forced labor by the end of the year.

“Instead of celebrating the founding of a party that has served as the vehicle to extract forced labor from the North Korean people, Kim Jong-Un should announce the end of coerced labor across the nation,” Robertson said. “The UN Security Council should act now to demand that North Korea put an end to this abusive economic system built on exploitation.”