(Geneva) – United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) member states should protect victims of forced labor and ensure accountability for rights abuses by creating a panel of experts to devise a comprehensive strategy to address decades of impunity in North Korea, Human Rights Watch said today.

United Nations Security Council members cast their votes in favor of the adoption of the agenda during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on alleged human rights abuses by North Korea in New York on December 10, 2015.

The North Korea government systematically uses forced labor from its citizens, including women, students and children, prisoners, and workers deployed overseas. Demands for labor are not simply a part of normal civic obligations, but are used to sustain the country’s economy or as a component of punishment or discrimination. Coerced labor without compensation is also a central element of the government’s strategy to maintain control and its hold on power.

“Forced labor is an egregious human rights abuse condemned worldwide, but for many North Koreans, it’s at the core of their everyday life,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. “The Human Rights Council should take action now to bring accountability for those responsible for the pervasive use of forced labor in North Korea.”

On March 14, 2016, Human Rights Watch and seven other groups will hold a panel discussion in Geneva, on the sidelines of the council’s 31st session. Marzuki Darusman, the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea, will present his final report at this session before a new mandate-holder is appointed. 

The panel discussion will be at 1:30 p.m. in room XXI, Palais des Nations, and will feature Darusman, Sifton, and three North Koreans who will describe their own experiences. They are: Kim Hang-Ok, who experienced the government’s mobilization of forced labor on a regular basis; An Su-Rim, forced to work for eight years without compensation at a paramilitary forced labor brigade; and a former North Korean overseas forced worker in Kuwait who goes by the surname Kim for fear of repercussions for family members left in North Korea.

Forced labor has been used for political coercion and punishment of perceived dissidents since the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, but more recently the government has made it part of the country’s economic backbone. After North Korea’s government-run food distribution system collapsed between 1993 and 1995, the country faced a severe famine that resulted in mass starvation. The famine compelled the government to permit for the first time small-scale private commercial activities, known as jangsa, or dealings with the marketplace. Government agencies, including the ruling Korean Workers Party, the army, prisons, the police, state-owned companies, schools, and universities, could similarly no longer rely on government funding and began to participate in the semi-official, parallel, “grey” private sector economy to raise money. State agencies increased their use of forced labor for these projects to save on labor costs.

Ordinary North Korean workers are not free to choose their own job. The government assigns jobs to both men and unmarried women from cities and rural areas. In theory, they are entitled to a salary, but in many cases these enterprises do not compensate them, forcing them to find other jobs to survive.

The government also compels numerous North Koreans to join paramilitary forced labor brigades and work extended periods of time without pay. These brigades (known in Korean as dolgyeokdae) are controlled and operated by the ruling party, have military structures, and work primarily on construction projects for buildings and other basic public infrastructure.

North Korean students have told Human Rights Watch that their schools have forced them to work without pay on farms for a month at a time at least twice a year – plowing and seeding during planting time and again to bring crops in at harvest time.

Prisoners in North Korea’s political prisons, as well as detention facilities for ordinary crimes, face back-breaking forced labor in difficult and dangerous conditions, sometimes in winter weather without proper clothing or adequate housing.

A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea revealed that the North Korean government has committed crimes against humanity, including enslavement, extermination, murder, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.

The UNHRC and the UN General Assembly have condemned the human rights situation in North Korea in previous resolutions and highlighted the need for accountability, including calls for the Security Council to consider referral to the International Criminal Court, consistent with the commission recommendations. The UN Security Council has recognized the gravity of the situation by addressing North Korea’s bleak human rights record as a formal agenda item two years in a row.

On September 8, 2015, in his most recent report to the General Assembly, Darusman called for the creation of a panel of experts to make concrete recommendations to advance accountability in North Korea. Human Rights Watch called on the UNHRC to include the creation of the accountability panel in the resolution to be voted later this month.

“One of the Human Rights Council’s biggest tasks is to hold accountable those responsible for rights abuses against North Koreans,” Sifton said. “Ensuring accountability is the only way forward if the international community is to help end decades of unchecked human rights abuses in North Korea.”