b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor. Nonetheless, the government mobilized the population for construction and other labor projects. “Reformatory labor” and “re-education through labor,” sometimes of entire families, were common punishments for political offenses. Forced and compulsory labor in such activities as logging, mining, tending crops, and manufacturing continued to be the common fate of political prisoners.
The law requires all citizens of working age to work and “strictly observe labor discipline and working hours.” There were numerous reports that farms and factories did not pay wages or provide food to their workers. Forced labor continued to take place in the brick making, cement manufacturing, coal mining, gold mining, logging, iron production, agriculture, and textile industries. The Walk Free Foundation, in its 2018 Global Slavery Index, estimated that one of every 10 individuals, or approximately 2.6 million persons, in the country were in situations of modern slavery.
According to reports from an NGO, during the implementation of short-term economic plans, factories and farms increased workers’ hours and asked workers for contributions of grain and money to purchase supplies for renovations and repairs. By law failure to meet economic plan goals may result in two years of “labor correction.” In 2019 workers were reportedly required to work at enterprises to which the government assigned them and then the enterprises failed to compensate or undercompensated them for their work. In June women in Hyesan reported that government officials required all women in the area to work daily on construction and other projects. Those physically unable to work had to pay a fine, and security forces arrested evaders.
The May 2019 UN report The Price Is Rights noted work “outside the State system, in the informal sector, has become a fundamental means to survival [but] access to work in the informal sector has become contingent on the payment of bribes.” In addition NGOs and media reported that stricter border and internal travel restrictions, due to government fears concerning the spread of COVID-19, made it extremely difficult for persons to pursue a living through informal trading. The HRNK’s September report entitled Imagery Analysis of Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, Jongno-ri, Update 3 detailed the use of forced labor by prison officials in the production of false eyelashes.
According to Open North Korea’s report Sweatshop North Korea, 16- or 17-year-old individuals from the low-loyalty class were assigned to 10 years of forced labor in military-style construction youth brigades. One worker reportedly earned a mere 120 won (less than $0.15) per month. During a 200-day labor mobilization campaign in 2016, for example, these young workers worked as many as 17 hours per day. State media boasted that the laborers worked in subzero temperatures. One laborer reported conditions were so dangerous while building an apartment building that at least one person died each time a floor was added. Loyalty class status also determines lifelong job assignments, with the lowest classes relegated to dangerous mines.
HRW reported the government operated regional, local, or subdistrict level “labor training centers” and forced detainees to work for short periods doing hard labor, with little food and subject to abuse, including regular beatings. Authorities reportedly sent individuals to such centers if suspected of engaging in simple trading schemes or unemployed. In 2018 the HRNK reported that thousands of citizens including children were detained in prison-like conditions in these centers and suggested that satellite imagery indicated the number and size of such camps were expanding.
The vast majority of North Koreans employed outside the DPRK were located in Russia and China. Workers were also reportedly in the following countries: Angola, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Iran, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, Niger, Oman, Qatar, Republic of the Congo, Senegal, South Sudan, and Vietnam. Some of these countries subsequently removed most or all of these workers during the year. Reports suggested several countries either had not taken action or had resumed issuing work authorizations or other documentation, allowing these individuals to resume work.
Numerous NGOs noted workers abroad were subjected to forced labor. NGO reports indicated the government managed these laborers as a matter of state policy and that they were under constant and close surveillance by government security agents. Laborers worked between 12 and 16 hours per day, and sometimes up to 20 hours per day, with only one or two rest days per month. Employers stated the average wage was 270,000 to 900,000 won per month ($300 to $1,000), but in most cases employing firms paid salaries directly to the government, which took between 70 percent and 90 percent of the total earnings, leaving approximately 90,000 won ($100) per month for worker take-home pay. The government reportedly received hundreds of millions of dollars from this system each year. The state reportedly withheld some wages in certain instances until the laborers returned home after the completion of their three-year contracts. Workers reportedly worked in a range of industries, including but not limited to apparel, construction, footwear manufacturing, hospitality, information technology services, logging, medical, pharmaceuticals, restaurant, seafood processing, textiles, and shipbuilding.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.