North Korean Students Work Hard to Support Families During Summer Breaks

Only the children of high-ranking officials or wealthier families do not have to work, one source says.

North Korean students are shown at a school in Pyongyang in a file photo.

North Korean students home from school for the summer are working hard to earn money amid failures by the country’s leadership  to raise living standards in the sanctions-hit, nuclear-armed state, North Korean sources say.

Growing numbers of teens as young as 13 are now taking whatever work they can find, a source in North Hamgyong province told RFA’s Korean Service this week.

“Underage students won’t say no to anything now,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Summer vacation is now ‘labor season’ for many North Korean teenagers.”

“Boys usually work at local markets delivering food or vegetables, while girls run errands at private restaurants or work as maids for wealthy families,” RFA’s source said, adding that many students compete for positions with the families of wealthy North Koreans or high-ranking officials.

“This way, they can earn more money and build relationships,” he said.

Most summer workers earn low pay, however, with wages running from only 50 Chinese yuan (U.S. $7.45) to 100 yuan for the entire season, the source said.

“Students coming from the seaside will try to catch small octopuses to sell, while students in farming areas will take work pulling weeds or caring for children.”

“They are forced to work for their living during summer vacations,” he said. "The only ones who don't have to work are the children of high-ranking officials or the rich."

Forced labor in the schools

Also speaking to RFA, a source in Yanggang province said that local secondary schools “mobilize” their students each year in August to pick berries, a specialty of the province, used to make wine that is then sold in China.

“They say that this is a way for the students to show their loyalty by earning foreign money [for the state], but the students complain about having to work for no pay,” he said.

Students can avoid working for the schools, though, arranging instead through brokers to get jobs in trading firms or joint ventures or making money in the manufacture of handicrafts, the source said.

“To opt out, they have to pay a fee to the school,” he said. “The fee was 10 yuan [U.S. $1.49] at first, but has now increased to 50 yuan [U.S. $7.45].”

Outside work remains attractive though, and “students still decide not to go berry picking, since they can make more than 100 Chinese yuan [U.S. $14.92] when they do handicraft work,” RFA’s source said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.