As reported over the past five years, human traffickers—including government officials—exploit North Koreans in the DPRK and abroad. Within North Korea, forced labor is part of an established system of political repression and a pillar of the economic system. The government subjects its nationals to forced labor in North Korean prison and labor camps, through mass mobilizations, and in overseas work. The DPRK holds an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners in political prison camps and an unknown number of persons in other forms of detention facilities, including re-education through labor camps. 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. Prisoners are subjected to unhygienic living conditions, beatings, torture, rape, a lack of medical care, and insufficient food. Many prisoners do not survive. The North Korean government operates regional, local, and sub-district level labor camps and forces detainees to work for short periods doing hard labor while receiving little food and being subjected to abuse, including regular beatings. Authorities reportedly send people to these camps if they are suspected of engaging in simple trading schemes or are unemployed; North Koreans who were not officially registered as being employed for longer than 15 days were at risk of being sent to labor camps for a minimum of six months.
Officials forcibly mobilized adults and school children to work in various sectors, including in factories, agriculture, logging, infrastructure work, information technology, and construction. An NGO reported the government withheld food rations or imposed taxes against adults who did not participate in these forms of forced labor. Schools receive compensation from the government for labor conducted by children. In addition, school principals and teachers exploit students for personal gain by forcing them to work on farms or construction sites. The effects of such forced labor on students included physical and psychological injuries, malnutrition, exhaustion, and growth deficiencies.
North Korean laborers sent by the government to work abroad, including through bilateral agreements with foreign businesses or governments, also face conditions of forced labor. Credible reports show many North Koreans working overseas are subjected to 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. 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 often 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. According to NGO reports, the North Korean government withholds 70-90 percent of wages from overseas workers, which generates an annual revenue to the North Korean government of hundreds of millions of dollars (more than a trillion won). 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. In 2017, UN Security Council resolutions banned other countries from issuing new work authorizations to DPRK laborers and required the expulsion of North Korean nationals earning income, consistent with international human rights and refugee law, no later than the end of 2019. 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 2018. There were still roughly 90,000 workers earning revenue for the DPRK regime during the reporting period. The majority work in China and Russia, but workers were also reportedly present in Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Belarus, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Georgia, Guinea, Italy, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Mali, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, Mozambique, Nepal, Nigeria, Oman, Peru, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Congo, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Zambia, and Zimbabwe in 2018.
The North Korean government’s egregious human rights violations can fuel trafficking in neighboring China. Many of the North Korean refugees and asylum seekers living illegally in China are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, and traffickers lure, drug, detain, or kidnap some North Korean women upon their arrival. Traffickers also operate networks spanning from China into North Korea to recruit North Korean women and girls to smuggle into China. These women are subjected to physical abuse and sexual exploitation by their traffickers, forced into prostitution in brothels or through internet sex sites, or compelled to work as hostesses in nightclubs or karaoke bars. Traffickers sell North Korean women to Chinese men for forced marriages, whereby they are subsequently forced into prostitution, domestic service, agricultural, or other types of work. 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 returned to the DPRK where they are subject to harsh punishment, including forced labor in labor camps, torture, forced abortions, or death.