Human Trafficking in North Korea
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.

Prison Camps

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
Photo: Unsplash

Human trafficking in North Korea
North Korea’s government has done nothing to aid victims of human trafficking. Forced labor is a pillar of North Korea’s established economic system. Adults and schoolchildren must work in various sectors, such as logging, mining, factories, agriculture, infrastructure work, information technology and construction. Adults who do not participate in these forms of labor suffer from withheld food rations and imposed taxes. Here are five facts about human trafficking in North Korea.

5 Facts About Human Trafficking in North Korea

  1. Child Exploitation: The North Korean government is paying schools for child labor while the children are under their care. Teachers and school principals exploit students for personal gain. The effects of child exploitation can cause physical and psychological injuries, malnutrition, exhaustion and growth deficiencies.
  2. Challenges of Leaving: The law criminalizes leaving North Korea without permission and criminalizes moving to a third-party country. Those seeking asylum are subject to indefinite imprisonment, forced labor and death.
  3. Labor Camps: The North Korean government runs regional, local and sub-district level labor camps. Those imprisoned work hard labor while receiving little resources and experiencing physical abuse. North Koreans who are not registered as employed for longer than 15 days are at risk of being sent to labor camps for at least six months.
  4. Poverty, Famine and Health Care: Repression of North Korea’s people forces North Koreans to remain in poverty. Food famine prevents a vast majority of North Korean’s from feeding themselves and their families. Another example of how North Korea represses its people is through the health care that it provides. While North Korea’s government has claimed to provide universal health care, the majority of the health care system collapsed in the 1990s. Health care is only available to those who can afford it.
  5. Migration to China: Without their basic needs met, hundreds of thousands of North Korean’s flee to China’s borders. Those fleeing from North Korea are desperate and are more vulnerable to human trafficking. In fact, traffickers capture 60% of women fleeing from North Korea to China and force them into sex work and forced marriages. While the U.N. Protocol on Trafficking calls on governments to protect the victims of human trafficking, China sees these victims as migrants and returns them to North Korea where they face extreme punishment.

The United States’ Recommendations

The United States ranked North Korea as a Tier-3 country in the 2020 Trafficking in Persons report for the 18th year in a row, due to not eliminating human trafficking and not making significant efforts to do so. It prioritized recommendations calling for the end of state-sponsored forced labor, including North Korean workers abroad and the prison camps that the North Korean government uses as a source of revenue and a tool of repression. The United States recommends criminalization of sex trafficking and labor trafficking, investigating and prosecution of trafficking cases and conviction of traffickers, allowing international human rights monitors to evaluate the living and working conditions of workers in North Korea and to allow North Koreans to choose and leave their employment at will.

Countries that rank as Tier-3 according to the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report will experience more than just shame. In fact, they will face financial penalties along with the United States’ opposition to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank granting North Korea with assistance.

The consequences of a bad ranking on the TIP report has forced countries to adopt anti-trafficking measures before. However, time will tell whether North Korea will do the same.

– Mckenzie Staley
Photo: Flickr