Workers rights in North Korea

This article appears in the latest issue of International Union Rights, the magazine of the London-based International Centre for Trade Union Rights.

The “hermit kingdom” of North Korea is one of the most difficult places in the world in which to learn about workers’ rights. North Korea is not only one of the few states that is not an ILO member, but is cut off from nearly all the other organisations which monitor human rights and trade union rights.

As a result, the annual report on violations of trade union rights issued by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) had this to say about North Korea last year: “Report violations – 2011. Murders: none reported. Attempted murders: none reported. Threats: none reported. Injuries: none reported. Arrests: none reported. Imprisonments: none reported. Dismissals: none reported.” The page where the ITUC would normally write up a few paragraphs about the country is blank.

Human rights groups have had a bit more to say. For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that “South Korean companies employ some 44,000 North Korean workers in the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), where the law governing working conditions falls far short of international standards on freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and protection from gender discrimination and sexual harassment.”

The workers at Kaesong might be the lucky ones, because as HRW also tells us, an estimated 200,000 North Koreans live in forced labour camps. And those in the camps are not necessarily people who’ve been convicted of any crime. As HRW says,
“the government practices collective punishment, sending to forced labor camps not only the offender but also his or her parents, spouse, children, and even grandchildren. These camps are notorious for abysmal living conditions and abuse, including severe food shortages, little or no medical care, lack of proper housing and clothes, mistreatment and torture by guards, and executions. Forced labor at the gwalliso often involves difficult physical labor such as mining, logging, and agricultural work, all done with rudimentary tools in dangerous and harsh conditions. Death rates in these camps are reportedly extremely high.”

Amnesty International reports that “The political prison camp at Yodok, home to around 50,000 men, women and children, is one of six known political prison camps in North Korea, in which a total estimated 200,000 political prisoners and their families are imprisoned without trial or following grossly unfair trials.”

Tens of thousands of North Koreans are now working, some legally and some not, in China and Russia. They provide a vital source of income for the country. But concerns have been expressed in the media about the conditions under which they work. The US government’s annual report on trafficking has named North Korea as one of the major centres of trafficking in the world.

As for trade unions, according to HRW the North Koreans don’t have any — at least not independent unions. “The ruling Korean Workers’ Party,” they write, “firmly controls the only authorized trade union organization, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea.” Most unions outside of North Korea will have nothing to do with the GFTUK, but in recent years, some South Korean union leaders have tried to engage their North Korean colleagues in dialogue.