Human trafficking in North Korea is a cause of concern. According to the 2022 Trafficking in Persons report by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), North Korea does not meet the “minimum requirements for the elimination of trafficking.” North Korea ranks as a Tier 3 country in terms of efforts to end trafficking, which is the lowest rank possible.
According to the 2022 TIP report, North Korea holds between 80,000 and 120,000 people in political prison camps and an “undetermined number of persons” reside in other types of confinement facilities, like re-education camps.
There are no official charges against many of these prisoners and authorities have not undertaken fair sentencing processes. All prisoners in these camps, including children, endure extreme working conditions through forced labor in areas such as mining, agriculture and logging for excessive amounts of time.
“In many cases, the government also detains all family members if one member is accused or arrested,” the report says. Children in the camps also undertake forced labor for as much as 12 hours daily and lack access to proper education. Conditions in these prisons are dire and prisoners face physical abuse, torture, hunger and inadequate medical care. The report highlights that “many prisoners do not survive.”
Child Labor in North Korea
From a tender age, North Korean children are forced into labor, including “agricultural labor support, item collection and construction work,” according to PSCORE. Children residing in prison camps, orphanages and relief shelters also engage in forced child labor.
The types of child labor typically vary according to season. In spring, children plant corn, sow seeds and collect certain beans and sunflower seeds. During summer, children must “remove grass and lay rocks to build railways,” use soil to mold bricks and collect certain nuts. Autumn’s activities involve agricultural support and collecting scrap iron and scrap paper. In winter, children work in mines and transport soil.
Agricultural Labor, Item Collection and Construction
Agricultural labor support is a term that describes compulsory farm work, such as harvesting, sowing, planting and weeding. “The government mobilizes children through the education system and sends them to local farms [that partner with schools]. Farm work is considered an essential component of the school curriculum and the work is unpaid,” PSCORE highlights.
The government also obligates students to collect specific items, such as scrap iron. Scrap iron is almost non-existent in the country yet failures to meet item quotas result in beatings and verbal abuse.
Students must also participate in building projects and performances on national holidays, such as the birthdays of the country’s leaders. Performances for Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un require the work of 50,000 children for six to 12 months. The children are tasked with flipping cards to create a colorful and dynamic site in honor of the leaders. The children practice the routine in extreme heat, which results in “casualties among the children.”
Students must also take part in construction products regarding “municipal infrastructure, school buildings, railroad repair and even private housing of school personnel.” The children engage in hazardous labor and, at times, “must also make or bring the materials necessary for construction at their own expense,” PSCORE says.
Forced Labor Abroad
North Korea does not only subject victims to exploitation within the country but also abroad. In 2015, the government had more than 50,000 citizens working abroad in Russia, China, Africa and the Middle East. The purpose of these workers is to earn money overseas to counteract the international sanctions countries impose on North Korea. The North Koreans abroad work for as many as 10 to 12 hours, six days a week. The government takes a bulk of their pay, 90%, which garners around $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion a year for North Korea, Reuters reported in 2016.
Help for North Koreans
Liberty in North Korea is an organization that provides support to North Koreans seeking refuge in other countries, such as South Korea. It also provides help to victims of human trafficking. The organization’s website tells the story of Joy. Via a broker, Joy left North Korea in search of a better life in China. The broker turned out to be a trafficker who sold her as a bride for $3,000. After some years, Joy safely made it to South Korea in 2013 with the help of Liberty in North Korea. Joy is currently studying social work and endeavors to help other North Korean women in situations of trafficking.
Though limited efforts are underway to address human trafficking in North Korea, the work of organizations like Liberty in North Korea is making a difference. By advocating and mobilizing to end human trafficking in North Korea, organizations can uphold the rights of North Koreans.
– David Keenan