“This ruling party congress is a rare event, but it’s made possible by the forced labor that untold thousands of North Koreans are subject to as part of everyday life under Kim Jong-Un’s abusive rule,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Kim Jong-Un talks a lot about improving the lives of North Koreans, but we’ll only know if he’s serious if he takes action to end human rights abuses. But I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.”
Since his rise to power in 2011, Kim has repeatedly stated the importance he attaches to the quality of people’s lives. In March 2013, Kim announced his parallel (byungjin) policy of simultaneously improving both the economy and nuclear defense. During his New Year statement on January 1, 2016, he called for the Worker’s Party of Korea to maintain “the improvement of people’s living conditions as the most important among numerous state affairs.”
Yet on February 25, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun announced the government’s launch of a 70-day “battle” to prepare for the party congress. People across the country, including women and children, were ordered to demonstrate their loyalty to Kim and the party through increased forced labor to produce more goods and crops in order to cover the costs of the party congress. Posters, billboards, and media broadcasts have been exhorting North Koreans to complete their “battle plans,” and counting down the days until the congress opens.
This practice of using compelled, uncompensated labor for projects by state agencies has been on the rise since the introduction of the market system to the DPRK in the late 1990s. North Koreans who have fled the country told Human Rights Watch that being forced to labor is common, and virtually all North Koreans have had to do so at some point during their lives.
Forced labor is a central element of North Korea’s egregiously bad human rights record. A 2014 UN commission of inquiry on human rights in the DPRK found that 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.” Students, farmers, craftsmen, factory workers, state enterprise workers, market traders, and other ordinar
North Koreans are also frequently forced to do work projects for free for the government or their institution. The commission also found that crimes against humanity, including enslavement, extermination, murder, rape, deliberate starvation, and enforced disappearances, have been committed “pursuant to policies at the highest level of the state.”
The UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly have repeatedly condemned the human rights situation in North Korea in annual resolutions, including by calling for the UN Security Council to consider referring the human rights situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court, consistent with the commission’s recommendations. The Human Rights Council has also highlighted the need for accountability for human rights violations in North Korea, and recently authorized the creation of a panel of experts tasked to find practical ways to hold rights violators in North Korea to account internationally.
Human Rights Watch called on Kim to take immediate and comprehensive measures to stop the systematic use of forced labor and the many other rights abuses committed by the government and allow for independent and impartial international investigation and prosecution of crimes against humanity uncovered by the commission. The North Korean government should also formally join the International Labor Organization (ILO) as a member state, and ratify ILO Conventions 29 and 105 as part of an effort to prevent use of forced labor in the future.
“Kim Jong-Un should use the party congress to announce that North Korea will join the ILO and end the systematic use of forced labor to drive its economy and reinforce its politics,” said Robertson. “The North Korean people deserve a government that will respect rights and promote justice.”
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