(Geneva) – The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child should press the North Korean government to end the exploitation of children through forced labor and discrimination, Human Rights Watch and three Korean nongovernmental organizations said today. During the week of February 6, 2017, Human Rights Watch, the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK), the New Korea Women’s Union, and the Caleb Mission will brief the pre-sessional working group of the committee in Geneva about the situation of children’s rights in North Korea.
Although the North Korean government claims to have abolished child labor 70 years ago, the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea and other government agencies still require students and other children to take part in forced labor on behalf of the state. Other human rights violations include government discrimination regarding access to education, abuses against children with mothers in third countries, corporal punishment at schools, and children compelled to work extended hours without pay in paramilitary forced labor brigades (known in Korean as dolgyeokdae).
“Forcing children to work is an egregious human rights abuse condemned worldwide, but for many North Korean students, it’s a part of their everyday life,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child should demand that Pyongyang tell the truth about these abusive practices and immediately bring them to a halt.”
The Committee on the Rights of the Child will hear the experiences of two North Korean teenagers who escaped the country. Jeon Hyo-Vin, 16, experienced forced labor in school almost daily, until she had to leave secondary school because of her family’s inability to pay the required cash payments. Kim Eun-Sol, 18, endured forced labor in school while she was a teenager. By age 13, she became an unpaid worker in a private home in order to survive since her grandmother could not support her. Her mother, who had left to earn a living in China, could not maintain contact with her daughter.
The committee reviews the compliance of each state party with its obligations under the Child Rights Convention, which North Korea has ratified. This pre-sessional meeting, which is closed to the public, allows civil society organizations and children, in a separate meeting, to confidentially brief the committee members about their concerns regarding North Korea’s child rights record. A list of topics, to which North Korea can then respond, is issued following the pre-sessional meeting. Nongovernmental organizations can make further submissions ahead of the full, public review in September 2017, during which the committee will question government officials on the topics raised.
Research conducted by the groups found that both the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Ministry of Education compelled labor from children in collaboration with schools and universities. They also made use of party wings such as the Korean Children’s Union (which students between the ages of 7 and 13 are required to join), and the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League (which is comprised of students between the ages of 14 and 30). Schools, party wings, school administrators, and teachers required students to farm, to help construct buildings, statues, roads or railroads, and collect materials (for example, scrap metal, broken rocks, pebbles, rabbit skin, old paper) that could be used or sold by the school. If a student cannot meet the required quota for products collected, which happens in many cases, then the student is required to pay a cash penalty.
The North Korean government has also compelled numerous children after they finish mandatory school at age 16 or 17 to join paramilitary forced labor brigades, which are controlled and operated by the ruling party. These brigades have a military-like structure, and work primarily on construction projects for buildings and other public infrastructure. Children with low songbun (a socio-political classification system the government uses to discriminate among North Korean citizens based on their perceived political loyalty to the ruling party) or those from poor families are often forced to do hard labor in these brigades without pay for up to 10 years.
“Children who end up in North Korean forced labor brigades live under terrible conditions, and are not free to leave,” said Kwon Eun-Kyoung, secretary general at the ICNK. “This type of enslavement must immediately be abolished and those responsible for directing these brigades punished.”
A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in North Korea found a gravity, scale, and nature of violations that revealed a state “without parallel in the contemporary world.” Abuses faced by children included, detention of children in political prison camps, trafficking and sexual exploitation of North Korean girls by Chinese men as wives or in the sex industry, and lack of civil and political rights and freedoms starting from childhood. The Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly have condemned the human rights situation in North Korea. The UN Security Council has recognized the gravity of the situation by addressing North Korea’s bleak human rights record as a threat to international peace and security as a formal agenda item three years in a row.
“The North Korean government’s practice of child exploitation not only neglects its obligations to protect children,” said Lee So-Youn, director of New Korea. “But it also exploits and discriminates against the most vulnerable children from families with low songbun and those who are the poorest.”