(Seoul) – The North Korean government should immediately stop exploiting school children by forcing them to work, Human Rights Watch said today, releasing its submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. The submission details forced labor including farming, rock breaking, scrap-metal collecting, and other strenuous labor, as well as discrimination and other abuses faced by North Korean children.

Kim Jong-un attends a performance of school children for the 70th anniversary of the Korean Children's Union in Pyongyang, June 2016. 

North Koreans who recently escaped to South Korea or keep contacts in the North told Human Rights Watch that the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea and the Ministry of Education obtain payments and benefits of child labor from grade schools, vocational schools, colleges, universities, and national youth and children’s leagues. School administrators force children to work to meet those demands, as well as to maintain and manage schools, and earn profits.

“North Korea’s common use of forced labor is bad enough, but it’s wholly inexcusable when children are exploited,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “In destroying the lives of children, the ruling Kim family shows just how low it’s prepared to go to sustain political and economic power. For many children, forced labor is sadly a normal hazard in everyday life.”

North Korea stated in a May 2016 report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors state compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that it abolished child labor 70 years ago. But North Koreans who spoke to Human Rights Watch detailed how the government ordered and received forced labor from children through activities or campaigns by the “socialist loyalty” movement, or from authorities requiring “patriotic labor.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 North Koreans, including several children, who left North Korea after 2013 or who have ongoing contacts in the country. Although the number of interviewees was not large enough to reach conclusions on overall conditions inside the country, the interviews provide a consistent picture of personal experiences. The interviewees provided disturbing accounts of requests for unpaid forced labor from children, physical punishments, and discrimination against children on political grounds.

Former teachers and students confirmed that the school systems also discriminate on the basis of songbun, a sociopolitical classification that distinguishes citizens on their personal performance and perceived loyalty to the ruling party and government. This classification affects access to food, basic services like health care and education, and jobs.

A former secondary school teacher from North Hamgyong province said that schools only focused on providing a serious education to students from families with good songbun, and such students were not forced to perform any labor. These students were typically those with money to afford private lessons, and were invariably the ones selected to attend regional competitions and national school events. Students said that the rest of the students were not allowed to ask any questions, and were compelled to memorize propagandistic teachings about the lives and accomplishments of the current Kim dynasty.

The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in North Korea found that the gravity, scale, and nature of violations revealed a state “without parallel in the contemporary world.” The commission’s report documented abuses including murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, and rape and other sexual violence, constituting crimes against humanity. The commission found that school children were indoctrinated to worship the Kim family and to incite discrimination, hostility, hate, racism, and violence, all contrary to educational goals found in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly also endorsed the commission’s report and condemned North Korea’s horrific rights record. In December 2016, the Security Council discussed human rights violations in North Korea for the third year in a row.

“By discriminating on the basis of loyalty to Kim Jong-un, North Korean schools cheat millions of children out of an education,” Robertson said. “North Korean children have nowhere to turn but the UN and foreign governments, who need to speak out now on the destruction of children’s lives, and put human rights at the center of their dealings with North Korea.”