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Behind North Korea’s Forced Labour System

“The harsh reality faced by North Korean workers and students is unpaid forced labor and exploitation. Those who refuse face being sent to forced labor camps where they must do hard labor, face physical abuse from guards, and are treated as less than human.”

-Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch

Recently, over the past six months, Human Rights Watch interviewed approximately 65 North Korean defectors in South Korea and Thailand. They listened to detailed accounts of life in North Korea, and asked specific questions about the unpaid forced labour system. When students finish school, they are given work placements without any say in the matter. They are forced to work long hours with no pay or a minimal substitution of food rations. In North Korea, not going to work or quitting your job, is grounds for severe punishment. If a North Korean misses one day of work, they are severely beaten by their manager or a government official. If they miss more than one day or stop coming to work altogether, the government will find them and send them to a forced labour camp for as little as three months to as long as two years.

Although North Korea’s constitution strictly forbids child labour, defectors have told Human Rights Watch that children in secondary school are regularly given work assignments in the afternoon and only attend school in the morning. In some of the poorer areas of North Korea, children are forced to work as early as age 8. Phil Robertson quoted, “While the North Korean government puts on grand shows of children dancing and performing in synchronized pageants for the world to see, the daily reality for many children is grinding, forced labour made worse by a lack of necessary food.”

Not surprisingly, North Korea is one of the few countries in the world that is not a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Human Rights Watch is encouraging North Korea to join the ILO and abide by internationally recognized labour standards. Children are being exploited at a time when they should be enjoying life, receiving a proper education and getting sufficient nutrients. As the years pass, more defectors are coming forth and sharing their stories with the rest of the world about this exploitive economic system. The truth is out there, it’s time to act. International organizations and governments need to put pressure on North Korea to change it’s labour standards and join the 21st century.

-Michelle Ragno

Read the full article here from Human Rights Watch: