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

Women's Rights in North Korea
Women’s rights is a global issue that never fails to persist. Gender equality is not something that countries can easily gain and even the most progressive governments cannot always ensure fair treatment. Many know North Korea as one of the most repressed countries in the world, with the United Nations Commission of Inquiry having determined that it systematically and egregiously violated human rights in 2014. The investigation found that the State was guilty of torture, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances and systemically denying basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. Many of these countless violations occurred at prison camps or detention centers with North Korean women as the most common victim. Here is some information about women’s rights in North Korea.

The Situation

While the State established a Women’s Rights Act in 2010 in response to international scrutiny, as a politically isolated country, the implementation of such policies is doubtful. Investigations by the UN COI proved not only that North Korea had not implemented the policies, but that circumstances might have even become aggravated in recent years.

A report from the Citizens Alliance of North Korean Human Rights determined there were no practical changes in terms of women’s access to labor, wages, social safety, medical care or education. Many of these resources remain restricted to those who cannot pay fees, making typical things such as childcare or higher education only available to women employed by the State. Even when employed, women often experienced intense discrimination in the workplace and had to quit in favor of providing for their families.

The Prevalence of Sexual Violence

Patriarchal culture exists in North Korea socially and politically. Female dominated trades experience heavy restrictions and are vulnerable to incessant fees. It is very difficult for women to make an independent income, and many are often completely dependent on their husbands or families. Employed women are often subject to sexual violence by their male coworkers or employers, and do not receive protection from the State. Circumstances are even direr in detention facilities and prisons, where sexual assault is a common practice. Guards, police agents and fellow inmates often force women in these facilities into submission. When assaulted, victims also frequently receive the blame for the violence enacted upon them.

The reality of women’s rights in North Korea does not correspond to the country’s policy efforts at gender equality. The DPRK 1946 Law on Sex Equality is one of the earliest examples of a comprehensive gender equality law, yet North Korean women have consistently struggled to maintain independence throughout their country’s history.

A legal analysis of the 2010 North Korean Women’s Rights Act shows that the State does not have true determination to enforce gender equality. The language of the document itself is far too vague to ensure the implementation of policy. It fails to define gender equality or the current issues plaguing women in North Korea and focuses on formal equality rather than anything of substance. The document has no clear statements on the prohibition of sexual harassment, reliable access to healthcare, rights to abortion, equal rights to participate in non-government organizations or the removal of gender stereotypes in education and media. Without clear policy, it is challenging to ensure women’s rights in North Korea.


There are no specific organizations solely advocating for the betterment of women’s rights in North Korea, but awareness alone can lead to change. Political isolation has enabled North Korea to ignore matters of equality, but supporting the stories of its women prevents the erasing of the problem. Following the investigations by human rights organizations, such as the Citizens Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, is a good way to ensure the implementation of policy and the recognition of the current issues that affect North Korean women.

Another good organization to support is Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). Reports in 2017 determined that more than 1,000 North Koreans defect every year. The experience of trying to leave the State can be highly traumatic for female defectors, and their experience of others smuggling them across borders presents many safety issues. North Korean women trying to defect often end up in detention centers or fail to find safe refuge. LiNK not only provides support for refugee rescue and resettlement but is also actively working to change the narrative of North Korea. By drawing focus away from the government, which dominates the country’s image, LiNK works to bring attention to the experiences of North Korea’s people.

One must encourage change by uplifting the voices of North Korean women and actively listening to their stories. Once that happens, women’s rights in North Korea can improve.

– Ida Casmier
Photo: Unsplash

10 Facts about North Korean Labor Exporting

North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is the most isolated and closed-off country to the rest of the international community. One of North Korea’s primary sources of foreign income is through their labor exportation. The U.S. Department of State estimates that 100,000 North Korean workers are working as the overseas labor exports of the North Korean government. It is also estimated that the North Korean export laborers generate $1.2 – $2.3 billion for the North Korean government. Here are 10 facts about North Korean labor exporting.

10 Facts about North Korean Labor Exporting

  1. North Korea’s isolated and closed economy is the source of its poor economy and labor export. North Korea’s economy is directly controlled and dictated by its government. The country’s estimated GDP in 2015 was $40 billion, compared to its neighbor South Korea’s $1.383 trillion. Because of the government’s heavy spending on the development of its military and nuclear arsenals, industries dedicated to civilian consumption are severely underfunded. The CIA’s 2019 profile of North Korea highlights the country’s shortage of fuel, arable land, poor soil quality and agricultural machinery. It also points out North Korea’s problem with human trafficking and forced labor.
  2. China and Russia are the primary importers of North Korean labor. Because of the country’s
    macroeconomic conditions and geographical proximity, the North Korean government has sustained economic ties with both the Russian and the Chinese government. According to a 2018 C4ADS report, there were approximately 30,000 DPRK nationals working in Russia. Some organizations also estimated that there were approximately 94,200 DPRK workers in China as of 2015. C4ADS is a nonprofit organization that provides data-driven analysis reports on global conflict and transnational security issues.
  3. North Korean labor exporting is not limited to manual labor. Historically, especially in for the male laborers in Russia, North Korean laborers worked in Russia’s Siberian timber industries. The majority of the female North Korean laborers worked in different North Korean themed restaurants and hotels in Russia and China. A recent investigation done by C4ADS, there is evidence of North Korean agents selling facial recognition software and battlefield radio systems to military organizations and police forces around the world. Many of these sellers when tracked by their IP addresses, seem to be based in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Some police forces around the world, such U.K.’s police force, may unknowingly purchase advanced software products from organizations run by the North Korean agents.
  4. The Russian government claims that Russia’s employment of North Korean laborers is not contradicting any of the U.N. sections against DPRK. In 2017, the U.N. Resolution 2397 stated
    that all North Korean workers in foreign countries must be sent back to DPRK by December of 2019. The sanction also limited the DPRK’s import of petroleum to 500,000 barrels. Some claim that the Russian government’s employment of the North Korean workers and petroleum export to the DPRK is a form of foreign aid. CNN interviewed Alexander Gabuev, chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Gabuev claimed that the Russian government’s aid to the North Korean government is a way of not “squeezing” the already desperate North Korean regime too hard.
  5. There is evidence of North Korean workers employed in Europe working in inhumane conditions. In March of 2019, the Worldcrunch investigation interviewed a North Korean worker who claimed that he was sent to the shipyard in Gdynia, Poland by the order of the North Korean regime. Working for a ship part manufacturing company named Crist, the North Korean worker told his story of the inhumane working conditions to which many North Korean workers are subjected. In one account, the worker told the story of Chon Kyongsu, who burned to death at the shipyard because he didn’t have a fireproof protective suit.
  6. Some exported North Korean workers sometimes defect from their workplaces. In April 2016, 13 North Korean restaurant workers from China defected to South Korea. A debate on whether this defection was out of their own free will or a cleverly planned trick by the restaurant manager to have the workers defect is still going on. These 13 defectors were the highlights of many news networks around the globe. Mr. Pak, a North Korean defector who was interviewed by the NK News, is among many other North Korean oversea laborers who defected from their workplace in Russia, China and the Middle East.
  7. Overseas labor is viewed as a privilege by many North Korean citizens. Mr. Pak was sent to Kuwait as a construction laborer by his government. Pak gives a detailed account of how he was selected as an oversea laborer. He met the North Korean regime’s criteria of becoming an oversea laborer by being a party member, married with children, having technical skills and having no previous access to classified information. However, Pak still had to bribe his examiner to have his certification approved.
  8. Many North Korean defectors struggle to adjust to the country of their defection. Even after defecting, the lives of the North Korean defectors don’t get easier. Post Magazine’s 2018 article gives a detailed story of two North Korean sisters living in South Korea after their defection. So Won, one of the sisters, described the cultural differences and prejudices she felt in South Korea. Small differences such as her fashion sense and having a North Korean accent to big issues such as the South Korean people’s prejudice against North Korean defectors made it hard to assimilate. Workers who defect to China risk the danger of getting arrested by the Chinese officials and get sent back to North Korea. If sent back, the consequence of which will be either execution or forced labor in a labor camp.
  9. There are many organizations that serve as Underground Railroad for many North Koreans. Organizations, such as Liberty In North Korea, rescue North Korean defectors by providing them with basic needs, transportations, accommodations and rescue fees for the staff and the partners of the underground railroad. According to the organization’s website, Liberty In North Korea’s rescue program managed to help 1,000 North Koreans in escaping the North Korean regime. Other underground organizations, whose volunteers are South Koreans, run safe houses and create many routes to smuggle North Korean defectors and foreign laborers out of North Korea and other countries.
  10. The South Korean government is taking measures to ensure the safety of the North Korean defectors. Many North Korean defectors go to China, Russia and countries in Southeast Asia before making their way to South Korea. While many neutral countries, mainly in Southeast Asia, serve as a brief respite in their journey to freedom, other countries such as China actively arrest North Korean defectors to deport them back to North Korea. This is because the Chinese government doesn’t view North Korean defectors as refugees. They are viewed as illegal economic migrants. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, along with many other NGOs throughout the world, works to not only ensure the safety of North Korean defectors but also provide financial support for their resettlement in South Korea. The Ministry of Unification also didn’t completely disclose their methods for the sake of the safety of North Korean defectors.

North Korean foreign laborers face many hardships and dangers. Not only are they economically exploited but they are also suffering under the North Korean regime’s oppression of their rights and freedom. These 10 facts about North Korean labor exporting show that North Korea’s illicit means of sustaining their economy puts many North Korean families in danger of exploitation, human trafficking and violence. While this might look bleak, there are many people and organizations that are bringing the strife of North Koreans to the attention of the global community. They remind the world of how important it is to recognize the strife of people around the globe and do a small part to aid them.

YongJin Yi
Photo: Flickr

How to Help North Korean Refugees
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea, remains one of the most severe dictatorial regimes in the world, and about 24 million people live under the control of its secretive and repressive government. Since the creation of North Korea in 1948, many have fled the country for political, ideological, religious, economic or personal reasons. As the country has become an important piece in East Asian politics and the dire situation in the country has continued, here are some facts about its situation as well as how to help North Korean refugees.

North Korean Refugees

People also call North Korean refugees “North Korean defectors” because of the political weight the cold war between North and South Korea caused. This other term, “defectors,” is important to know, as there is a constant stream of articles and news stories about North Korean defectors. As of 2017, some sources estimate that over 1,000 North Koreans escape every year.

From the end of the 20th century to today, one of the main causes of North Korean defection has been the lack of food. The drastic lifestyle change from North Korea to their new countries often shocks refugees. One refugee living in Seoul was so hungry as a child that he could not even find the words to describe it, but today has almost any food imaginable available with a quick online order.

Reports in 2017 showed that 85 percent of North Korean refugees were women. Women made up 71 percent of refugees in South Korea, a very common destination for North Korean refugees. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, there have been about 31,000 North Korean refugees that have fled to South Korea’s capital city of Seoul and the surrounding region of Gyeonggi.

However, the majority of North Korean refugees go to China. Some sources estimate that between 50,000 and 200,000 North Korean refugees are currently living in China. For some refugees, China is the first stop of their journey to other Asian countries. After all, China is North Korea’s main ally, and the Chinese border is much easier to cross than the heavily-monitored DMZ with South Korea. However, under Kim Jong-un’s heightened border security and crackdowns on smugglers, the number of refugees successfully escaping the country has decreased in recent years. While there were 2,706 defections to South Korea in 2011, this number dropped to 1,127 in 2017.

Challenges of Leaving North Korea

Sex trafficking is a big issue for female North Korean refugees in areas such as China, South Korea and Russia. In China, traffickers traffick about 80 percent of female refugees through black markets for the purpose of becoming North Korean brides. With the vast majority of refugees being female, entering a new country when going to the police or other authorities likely means repatriation back to North Korea, these women are extremely vulnerable to human trafficking and abuse.

Leaving North Korea is incredibly hard. Even travel within the country receives strict regulation, and leaving the country is an act of treason, with the punishment being a minimum of seven years at a North Korean concentration camp. These concentration camps, with estimated 80,000-120,000 prisoners, systematically starve, torture and work people to death. The journey of a successful North Korean defector is extremely hard and takes a great number of risks.

In 2016, approximations determined that up to 30,000 half-North Korean children living in China were the result of forced marriages between North Korean refugees and Chinese men through sex trafficking. Many mothers end up arrested or dead, and the often poor Chinese fathers struggle to provide resources to support their children. These children, struggling to survive in their own unfortunate circumstances, are vulnerable to abuse without any immediate family to care for them. Organizations, such as Crossing Borders, work to help these children gain a stable life.

Organizations Helping North Korean Refugees

Crossing Borders is a Christian nonprofit based in China, which commits itself to helping refugees live a better life by securing safety and stability for them. Refugees’ delicate legal status leaves them in a position to suffer exploitation, trafficking and even murder, but Crossing Borders is determined to provide support to them. Crossing Borders has two main programs to help North Korean refugees: Refugee Care and Orphan Care. These have provided safety, medicine, financial aid and counseling to North Korean refugees in China.

Liberty in North Korea is an organization committed to getting North Koreans to safety through charitable donations. It has gathered information about escape routes throughout China and Southeast Asia and has formed relationships with individuals that will help move refugees safely across borders. It has rescued 1,000 refugees so far. Its team includes individuals located in the U.S., South Korea and Southeast Asia.

Based on the Korean peninsula, Helping Hands Korea works to raise awareness of North Korean refugees and help refugees in crisis. Helping Hands Korea has delivered food, medicine and clothing to vulnerable groups in North Korea and has assisted children separated from their mothers by providing foster care or money to grandparents to help care for them.

While fewer North Koreans are successfully escaping the country today, their desperate situation continues to draw concern and aid. For those who want to know how to help North Korean refugees, supporting and donating to organizations such as Crossing Borders, Liberty in North Korea and Helping Hands Korea will help ensure that these people are safe and living in stable conditions.

Natalie Chen
Photo: Flickr