Workers in North Korea’s mining industry labor under brutal conditions, suffering frequent accidents and a wide range of human rights violations, a report released on Thursday by a Washington-based nongovernmental organization says.
Political prisoners and persons drawn from a social class considered politically “unreliable” make up the greatest number of those working in the mines, the report, “Gulag, Inc.: The Use of Forced Labor in North Korea’s Export Industry,” says.
These groups “are forced to work in mines and extremely harsh environments because of their low songbun,” or social status passed down from parent to child, according to the report prepared by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (CHRNK).
“[This] allocation of labor in the coal and mining industries should be understood as a state policy of forced labor,” the report says, adding, “For those working in these industries, moving to a different sector or occupation is strictly limited and controlled.”
Forced labor in North Korea’s mines violates not only international human rights standards ratified by the isolated, authoritarian state, but also rights guaranteed by North Korea’s own laws, the CHRNK report says.
“In particular, Article 5 of the Socialist Labor Law states that ‘All workers are free to choose their jobs according to their wishes and talents and are guaranteed stable jobs and working conditions by the State.’”
These rights are not observed in practice, though, “as the state forcibly allocates labor for every sector based on its own economic plans,” the report says.
Harsh, primitive conditions
Workers of all ages labor under harsh and primitive conditions in North Korea’s mines, according to a Korean woman who was held from 1974 to 2001 in a camp for political prisoners, and later escaped to South Korea.
In the mine in which she worked, “men and boys dislodged the coal with picks and shovels, and the women and girls picked up the coal pieces and transported [them] in buckets, wheelbarrows, and coal trolleys,” said the former prisoner, Kim Hye-sook, quoted in the report.
These would then be carried, pushed, or pulled up ramps to the opening of the mine, she said.
“There were many accidents in the mines,” she said.
Exports of coal, iron ore, copper, and other minerals now earn wealth going mainly to support North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the lifestyle of national leader Kim Jong Un and the privileged class surrounding him, according to the report.
U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea because of recent weapons tests appear to have had little effect so far on the country’s export to China of underground resources, and should be more closely targeted, the report says.
“There is an urgent need to strengthen controls on North Korea’s mining exports, not only to improve the effectiveness of sanctions aimed at altering Pyongyang’s stance on denuclearization, but also to protect the human rights of countless North Koreans who endure forced labor in mines across the country.”