Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
Section 7. Worker Rights
Workers do not have the right to form or join independent unions, strike, or bargain collectively. There were no known labor organizations other than those created and controlled by the government. While the law stipulates that employees working for foreign companies may form trade unions and that foreign enterprises must provide conditions for union activities, the law does not protect workers who might attempt to engage in union activities from employer retaliation, nor does it provide penalties for employers who interfere in union activities. Unlawful assembly may result in five years of correctional labor.
The WPK purportedly represents the interests of all labor. The central committee of the WPK directly controls several labor organizations in the country, including the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea and the Union of Agricultural Workers of Korea. Operating under this umbrella, unions functioned according to a classic Stalinist model, with responsibility for mobilizing workers to support production goals and for providing health, education, cultural, and welfare facilities.
The government controlled all aspects of the formal employment sector, including assigning jobs and determining wages. Joint ventures and foreign-owned companies were required to hire their employees from government-vetted lists. The government organized factory and farm workers into councils, which had an effect on management decisions. They established the first special economic zone (SEZ) in the Rajin-Sonbong area in 1991. The same labor laws that apply in the rest of the country apply in the Rajin-Sonbong SEZ. The government selected the workers permitted to work in the SEZ. The government announced the establishment of 13 new SEZs in 2013, six additional SEZs in 2014, and two more SEZs in 2015.
The ROK suspended the joint-venture Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in 2016, citing North Korea’s launch of a satellite using ballistic missile technology. On September 14, the two countries opened at the former KIC site a joint liaison office to facilitate dialogue; the KIC, however, remained suspended. In 2017 there were reports North Korean authorities continued to operate at least 19 clothing factories within the KIC without informing the ROK; other observers noted that, although some token industrial activity may have occurred, the KIC was not operational. When the complex was officially operational, it operated under special regulations that did not contain provisions that stipulate freedom of association or the right to bargain collectively. The government reportedly selected worker representatives, subject to approval of South Korean company management (also see sections 7.b. and 7.e.).
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, have traditionally been 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. Re-education involved memorizing speeches by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
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 brick making, cement manufacturing, coal mining, gold mining, logging, iron production, agriculture, and textile industries. South Korean NGO Open North Korea estimated that North Koreans perform $975 million worth of forced labor each year. In July the Walk Free Foundation, in its Global Slavery Index, estimated one out of every 10 individuals, or approximately 2.6 million persons, in North Korea were in situations of modern slavery.
According to reports from a 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.” There were reports that workers were required to work at enterprises to which the government assigned them and then failed to compensate or undercompensated them for their work. Media reported an increasing number of urban poor North Koreans moved to remote mountains in an attempt to hide from authorities and avoid mass mobilizations. In March the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea noted that in April 2017 authorities reportedly evicted up to 600 families in villages in Ryanggang Province to allow for the construction of a new railway line and high-rise apartment blocks. Some of those evicted were reportedly mobilized alongside local youth shock brigades to help with the railway construction.
According to Open North Korea’s report Sweatshop, North Korea, 16- or 17-year-olds of low songbun were assigned to 10 years of forced labor called dolgyeokdae. 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, the 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 new floor was added. Songbun status also determines lifelong job assignments, with the lowest classes relegated to dangerous mines.
The NGO Human Rights Watch reported the government operated regional, local, or subdistrict level “labor training centers” and forced detainees to work for short periods doing hard labor, receiving 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.
There were an estimated 100,000 North Korean citizens working as overseas laborers, primarily in Russia and China. Workers were also reportedly present in the following countries: Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Georgia, Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mali, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Congo, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Workers reportedly worked in a range of industries, including but not limited to apparel, construction, footwear manufacturing, hospitality, IT services, logging, medical, pharmaceuticals, restaurant, seafood processing, textiles, and shipbuilding.
Reports suggested many countries took steps to reduce the number of North Korean workers in their countries during the year, although some reports suggested several countries resumed issuing work authorizations for North Korean workers in the second half of the year. For example, the Russian government reportedly extended work permits for more than 3,200 DPRK workers through December 2019. Similarly, there were reports that previously closed factories in China had resumed operations with new North Korean workers.
Numerous NGOs noted North Korean workers abroad were subjected to forced labor. NGO reports indicated the government managed these laborers as a matter of state policy and were under constant and close surveillance by DPRK 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 as 270,000 to 900,000 won per month ($300 to $1,000), but in most cases employing firms paid salaries directly to the DPRK 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 (more than a trillion won) from this system per year. The state reportedly withheld some wages in certain instances until the laborers returned home after the completion of their three-year contracts, making them vulnerable to deception and exploitation by authorities.
Some academic reporting showed North Korean workers specializing in cyber were required to meet financial quota through both licit and illicit cyber activity. According to NGO reporting, such workers reportedly face many of the same living and working conditions as those workers in low-skilled jobs.
In 2017 international press and the NGO Human Rights Watch reported the forced labor conditions faced by DPRK overseas workers at World Cup sites in Russia, noting 11-hour workdays for $10-$15 a day, seven days a week, the confiscation of passports, and cramped living conditions.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
By law the state prohibits work by children younger than age 16. Neither the general labor law nor Kaesong Industrial Complex labor law prohibits hazardous child labor.
Officials occasionally sent schoolchildren to work in factories or fields for short periods to assist in completing special projects, such as snow removal on major roads or meeting production goals. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child noted its concern children were also sometimes subjected to mass mobilizations in agriculture away from their families, with long working hours per day, sometimes for periods of one month at a time. The Committee also noted its concern with the practice of accepting children aged 16 and 17 to dolgyeokdae (military-style construction youth brigades) for 10-year periods. Such children were subjected to long working hours and heavy physical work.
The effects of such forced labor on students included physical and psychological injuries, malnutrition, exhaustion, and growth deficiencies. The law criminalizes forced child labor, but there were reports such practices occurred. NGOs reported government officials held thousands of children and forced them to work in labor camps with their parents.
While the law provides that all citizens “may enjoy equal rights in all spheres of state and public activities” and all “able-bodied persons may choose occupations in accordance with their wishes and skills,” the law does not prohibit discrimination with respect to employment or occupation on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or other factors. There is no direct reference to employment discrimination in the law, yet classification based on the songbun system has a bearing on equal employment opportunities and equal pay.
Despite the law according women equal social status and rights, societal and legal discrimination against women continued. The 2014 UN COI report noted that, despite the economic advancement of women, the state continued to discriminate against them and imposed many restrictions on the female-dominated market. The November 2017 UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women noted, for example, its concern with the continued sex-segregation of the workforce, with labor laws and directives assigning specific jobs to women while impeding their access to others, and women’s retirement age being set at 55 years, compared with 60 years for men, and its consequences for their pension benefits, economic independence, and access to decision-making positions.
Persons with disabilities also faced employment discrimination; for example, the December 2017 report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities noted persons with disabilities with no opportunities to work were “looked down upon.” Most of the approximately 1,200 workshops or light factories for persons with disabilities built in the 1950s were reportedly no longer operational; there were limited inclusive workplaces, although the government reported it created nine self-help groups in 2014 of persons with and without disabilities working together on income-generating activities.
No reliable data were available on the minimum wage in state-owned industries. Monthly wages in some enterprises in the heavy industrial sectors as well as in the textile and garment sector reportedly increased from 3,000 to 4,000 won ($0.30 to $0.40) to 30,000 won ($30) in 2013, with approximately one-third of the wage paid in cash and the remainder in kind.
The law stipulates an eight-hour workday; however, some sources reported that laborers worked longer hours, perhaps including additional time for mandatory study of the writings of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The law provides all citizens with a “right to rest,” including one day’s rest per week (Sunday), paid leave, holidays, and access to sanitariums and rest homes funded at public expense; however, the state’s willingness and ability to provide these services were unknown.
The law recognizes the state’s responsibility for providing modern and hygienic working conditions. The law criminalizes the failure to heed “labor safety orders” pertaining to worker safety and workplace conditions, but only if the conditions result in the loss of lives or other “grave loss.” Workers themselves do not have a designated right to remove themselves from hazardous working conditions.
Mandatory participation in mass events on holidays and practice sessions for such events sometimes compromised leave or rest from work. Workers were often required to “celebrate” at least some part of public holidays with their work units and were able to spend an entire day with their families only if the holiday lasted two days. Failures to pay wages were common and reportedly drove some workers to seek income-generating activity in the informal or underground economy.
Many worksites were hazardous, and the industrial accident rate was high. Citizens labored under harsh conditions while working abroad for state-owned firms and under arrangements between the government and foreign firms (see section 7.b.).
Endnote: Note on Sourcing
The United States does not have diplomatic relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The DPRK does not allow representatives of foreign governments, journalists, or other invited guests the freedom of movement that would enable them to assess fully human rights conditions or confirm reported abuses.