Disturbing Ways North Korean Kids Are Forced Into Child Labor

As we’ve seen in news reports, North Korea remains one of the most repressive governments in the world. While millions are spent on Kim Jong Un’s missile program, many North Korean people are forced to eke out a living in grinding poverty. To make things worse, North Korean kids are also subjected to grave injustices, including backbreaking manual labor. The enforcers of these shocking practices are the government, military, and surprisingly, elementary schools.

When the international organization Human Rights Watch approached North Korea on the matter, the reclusive country said that 70 years ago, it abolished child labor by law. However, based on interviews with those who have fled the country, the organization concluded North Korea continues to extract forced labor from children and students.

Here we’ll take a look at eight forms of manual, forced child labor that take place today in North Korea.

1. Working in prison camps

A boy holds a mock rifle as he sits with other children.

Sometime whole families end up in labor camps. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

  • Children are taken along with their parents to work in brutal labor camps.

Punished for the perceived crimes of their parents, many North Korean children are forced into labor camps, where they must do backbreaking work. “These are intended as one-way trips, since the entire family is viewed as politically irredeemable and therefore can be abused, starved, and ultimately worked to death,” said Human Rights Watch Asia’s Deputy Director Phil Robertson.

Adults and children alike in these camps work in forests, mines and factories where injures are rampant due to lack of safety measures. “Children in these camps are physically abused, deprived of all but the most rudimentary education, and forced to work in dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions,” Robertson said.

Next: Laboring at a luxury resort under deadly conditions

2. Clearing snow with pickaxes

A skier at the Masikryong ski resort

The elite ski thanks to thousands of young laborers. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

  • Kids cleared snow with pickaxes and sticks in blizzard conditions at a state-run ski resort.

With its reputation for being a country where the majority of people live in poverty, you might be surprised to hear North Korea even has a ski resort. Yet a three-hour drive east of the capital Pyongyang is a 10-slope, luxury destination called Masikryong. North Korea’s elite visit this resort for winter getaways. At any given time, laborers can be seen handling the daunting task of clearing snow from nearby roads for the approaching cars. An NBC reporter who visited the resort noticed that among the laborers were teenagers and children who looked to be 11 or 12 years old.

Red-faced, they hacked away at snow with pickaxes and sticks, pushing it aside with makeshift wooden shovels. These thousands of workers toiled in blizzard-like conditions with temperatures below freezing, wrapped in jackets, scarves, and hats. Uniformed soldiers oversaw the operation.

Next: Taken from schools to spend long days toiling on farms

3. Working on farms

A boy collects corn cob beside railway

Children plow and harvest crops. | Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images

  • Kids are taken from schools to plow and harvest crops.

Both the country’s ruling party and Ministry of Education request cash or labor directly from schools. As such, twice a year, kids are forced by their schools to do farming. They must do plowing and seeding during the sowing period, followed by harvesting of the crops later in the year. One girl who did this job commuted daily by walking for over an hour to a farm, along with her classmates. She said she was never paid for the work. The only students not forced into manual labor are reportedly those with money and connections. Rather than performing labor, these children receive special lessons in English, math, and science.

Next: Chain-gangs on the railroad

4. Repairing railways

Children stand besides a railway track in the industrial city of Chongjin on North Korea's northeast coast

Backbreaking labor is the norm for some North Korean kids. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

  • Kids work on railway tracks with hammers.

In addition to farming, schools send out their children to work other types of 10-hour shifts in the blazing sun. Some load heavy rocks into sacks and carry them, while others repair railway tracks with hammers. Video footage obtained in secret showed dozens of boys and girls working away near train tracks. One sad-looking eight- or nine-year-old boy in a blue England soccer shirt was ordered to break rocks near a cliff.

Next: 9-year-olds hauling logs

5. Hauling logs

Children pull a cart loaded with wood along a road near Kiliju on North Korea's northeast coast

None can rest until they’re all done. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

  • Until each group member hauls their quota, none can rest.

One man named Kang Chol-hwan went on to write a memoir about his time in a North Korean labor camp back when he was a child. At age nine, he was tasked with hauling logs from where they fell to where they would be cut. Each of the five children on his team had to finish 12 round trips with a log on their shoulders half the way. Until the entire team’s daily quota had been reached, no members could return to their camp, no matter how tired or sick they felt. The rule had a way of destroying any solidarity among the detainees, he said.

Next: Kids receive quotas for junk collecting.

6. Collecting scrap material

A woman and child pull a cart loaded with wood along a road near Kiliju on North Korea's northeast coast

If they don’t find enough scrap, they must pay a fine. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

  • If children don’t come up with enough scrap metal and broken rocks, they have to pay a fine.

Another act of manual labor imposed on children by North Korean schools is collecting of scrap metal, broken rocks and pebbles, rabbit skins, old paper, and other things which could be used in construction. When kids aren’t able to come up with enough items to meet the imposed quota, they are required to pay cash instead. The materials collected are either used or sold by the schools.

Next: Cleaning Kim Jong Un’s 34,000 statues and monuments

7. Cleaning statues

Statues of North Korea's founding president Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il are unveiled

Kids keep the many monuments to the Kim family looking pristine. | Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images

  • Kids can be seen cleaning some of the 34,000 statues devoted to the ruling Kim family.

There are 34,000 statues in North Korea of members of the ruling Kim family, including monuments devoted to Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, both now deceased. North Korean schools will often require kids to spend a good part of their day working on beautification projects in public areas. This includes cleaning monuments and statues. Kids can often be seen working away at these sites, brooms in hand.

Next: Teenagers constructing buildings under military supervision

8. Constructing buildings

North Korean workers are seen from the window of a train as they work on a construction site along the railway

Teens must work construction after finishing school. | Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images

  • Teenagers forced into paramilitary labor brigades work to construct buildings.

Once 16- and 17-year-old children finish mandatory school, some are put into paramilitary forced labor brigades. These are operated by the North Korean ruling party. Here, the teenagers work primarily on construction projects for buildings and other infrastructure.

“Children who end up in North Korean forced labor brigades live under terrible conditions, and are not free to leave,” said Kwon Eun-Kyoung, secretary general at the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea. “This type of enslavement must immediately be abolished and those responsible for directing these brigades punished.”

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