As reported over the past five years, the DPRK is a source country for men, women, and children who are subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Government oppression in the DPRK prompts many North Koreans to flee the country in ways that make them vulnerable to human trafficking in destination countries. Within North Korea, forced labor is part of an established system of political repression. The government subjects its nationals to forced labor through mass mobilizations and in North Korean prison camps. The DPRK holds an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners in political prison camps in remote areas of the country. In many cases, these prisoners have not been charged with a crime or prosecuted, convicted, or sentenced in a fair judicial hearing. In prison camps, all prisoners, including children, are subject to forced labor, including logging, mining, or farming for long hours under harsh conditions. Political prisoners are subjected to unhygienic living conditions, beatings, torture, rape, a lack of medical care, and insufficient food. Many prisoners do not survive. Furnaces and mass graves are used to dispose the bodies of those who die in these prison camps.
The North Korean government operates regional, local, or sub-district level “labor training centers” and forces detainees to work for short periods doing hard labor, receiving little food, and subject to abuse, including regular beatings. Authorities reportedly send people to such centers if they are suspected of engaging in simple trading schemes or are unemployed. At the direction of the government, schools force students older than 14 years of age, including those in universities, to work without pay on farms for periods up to a month, twice a year; students who do not meet work quotas set out by the schools face physical abuse. In addition, school principals and teachers exploit students for personal gain by forcing them to work on farms or construction sites.
Many North Korean laborers sent by the government to work abroad under bilateral contracts with foreign governments also face conditions of forced labor. Estimates of the number of overseas workers dispatched and the amount of revenue those workers generated for the DPRK government vary widely; some estimates indicate the number of workers is in the tens of thousands in total. The majority work in Russia and China, but Middle Eastern, African, and other European and Asian countries also host North Korean laborers. Credible reports show many North Koreans working under these contracts are subjected to conditions indicative of forced labor, such as working excessively long hours in hazardous temperatures with restricted pay, for up to three years at a time. North Korean government “minders” restrict and monitor their movement and communications. North Koreans sent overseas do not have a choice in the work the government ultimately assigns them and are not free to change jobs. These workers face threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in the DPRK if they attempt to escape or complain to outside parties. Workers’ salaries are appropriated and deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which justifies its retention of most of the money by claiming various “voluntary” contributions to government endeavors. Workers receive only a fraction of the money paid to the North Korean government for their work and face punishment if they fail to meet production or work targets. Wages of some North Korean workers employed abroad reportedly are withheld until the laborers return home, increasing their vulnerability to coercion and exploitation by authorities. Other reports note these laborers work on average between 12 and 16 hours a day, and sometimes up to 20 hours per day, and are allowed only one or two rest days per month.
The North Korean government system of harsh punishment through forced labor camps or the death penalty can fuel trafficking in neighboring China. Many of the estimated 10,000 North Korean women and girls who have migrated illegally to China to flee abuse and human rights violations are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, and traffickers reportedly lure, drug, detain, or kidnap some North Korean women upon their arrival. Others offer jobs but subsequently force the women into prostitution, domestic service, or agricultural work through forced marriages. These women are subjected to sexual exploitation by Chinese or Korean-Chinese men, forced prostitution in brothels or through internet sex sites, or compelled service as hostesses in nightclubs or karaoke bars. These victims often lack identification documents and bear children with Chinese men, which further hinders their ability to escape. If found by Chinese authorities, victims are often forcibly repatriated to the DPRK where they are subject to harsh punishment, including forced labor in labor camps or death.