Child Labor within North Korea

How are North Korean children systematically forced into labor within and outside the education system? Child labor has become a prevalent form of exploitation and human rights abuse in the regime. Read below for more information.


According to Article 31 of the North Korean Constitution of 2016, North Korean citizens are eligible for labor beginning at the age of 16, and child labor is forbidden. Despite being a party to several international conventions on child labor and having enacted domestic laws against child labor, the North Korean government does not, in reality, offer meaningful protection for children.

Instead, from a very young age, children are forced into various labor, both within and outside the North Korean education system. These include participating in the Agricultural Labor Support, the Item Collection as well as construction work and other miscellaneous activities. In addition, children in prison camps, orphanages and relief shelters are also subject to arduous labor.


Child Labor within the education system

1. Agricultural Labor Support

“Agricultural Labor Support” refers to mandatory farm labor such as sowing, weeding, rice-planting, transplanting “nutrition jars”, and harvesting. The government mobilizes children through the education system and sends them to a local farm, which is partnered with a school. Because farm work is considered an essential component of the school curriculum, the work is unpaid. There are two types of Agricultural Labor Support within the education system, namely local and long- term.

1.1 Local

The Local Agricultural Labor Support involves labor on farms close to the students’ schools and homes. Over the course of the year, students are given different tasks depending on the season. The work is strenuous, exhausting, and time-consuming and becomes increasingly onerous as the students get older. Students invariably spend more time performing unpaid labor on farms than they do actually studying and receiving a proper education.

1.2 Long term

The Long-term Agricultural Labor Support is generally for high school students and requires them to work on a farm collective for a month or more. During spring, summer, and fall there is a high demand for labor to complete farm work, so students are mobilized to assist and remain at a farm for a prolonged period of time, lasting usually from 30 to 40 days in the middle of the semester. Students travel to a local or distant farm, determined either by the government or the school, and lodge there while completing the farm-related tasks given to them. Accommodation and sanitation facilities are usually very poor, no matter where they are. Both the North Korean government and the school system knowingly place children in abominable working conditions.

2. Item Collections

Item collections administered by the school, including the fuel and waste paper collections, came to exist because of the North Korean government’s failure to honor its obligations to finance educational institutions, including teachers’ salaries and cost of school supplies. The role initially held by the government is imposed on the schools, who in turn force children to perform onerous item collections to gain needed supplies and finances.

2.1 Government-run

The Children’s Initiative refers to assignments given to students by the government through the school system, starting in elementary school, to bring a wide range of supplies, materials, and goods on a yearly basis with the goal of providing practical help to the nation. The items students have to bring under the Children’s Initiative include: scrap papers, scrap iron, scrap rubber, manure (human feces), medicinal plants, pickled food, rabbit hide, mittens, etc.

The array of items that the government orders students to bring lays an oppressive, inescapable burden of child labor on them. In addition to the exorbitant amounts, some items are nearly impossible to gather in North Korea. For example, no one can find a piece of scrap iron, let alone over 10 kg, because there is almost no scrap iron in North Korea.
In addition to the annual Children’s Initiative, there are other government-run item collections for students. The umbrella North Korean term for all government orders relayed to students is pochi, which broadly means “facilitating a project by dividing team tasks and sharing operations manuals”. Therefore, pochi includes orders of not only item collections, like the Children’s Initiative, but also monetary donations and societal and political assignments, such as participating in political events, cleaning statues, supporting the People’s Army and the Construction Site Support Project.

David Guttenfelder

2.2 School-run

School-run pochi is organized and planned by a school’s high ranking officials, such as the principal. Teachers do not order school-run collections, but they may take a portion of the collections or demand additional work from the students. In order for schools to make up for the government’s unfulfilled duty of budget appropriator, they have to earn their own funds, and they deem the exploitation of their students as the appropriate solution.

The table below shows the types of work the children are demanded to do according to the seasons.

Planting cornLooking for rabbit hideAgricultural supportLooking for rabbit hide
Collecting sunflower seeds, hemp, castor beans and beansPulling out grass and laying rocks to build railwaysCollecting scrap paper and scrap ironCollecting scrap paper and scrap iron
SowingMaking bricks out of soilThe Battle of Autumn Harvesting*Working on trees
Collecting scrap paper and scrap ironCollecting pecans, hazelnuts and acorns Transporting soils
Collecting brackensCollecting and removing the skin of bush clovers Working in the mine

*the one-week period where students are expected to dedicate their time to working, without attending classes at all.

3. Punishments

3.1 Physical
As with most countries which forbid severe corporal punishment, North Korea also has in place regulations against it. However, because these laws are not enforced, not only are North Korean children exposed to abuse by their teachers, the perpetrators do not face any consequences. Teachers will ruthlessly beat students who fail to attend or do their work properly.

3.2 Verbal
Students who do not attend the Agricultural Labor Support or complete the Item Collection are both rebuked by their teachers and other students during a Struggle Session (sa-sang-tujeng), in which students accuse one another of capitalism and reactionary ideology. Additionally, they are exposed to open criticism from their peers through a social system called “saeng-hwal-chong-hwa.” Saenghwal-chong-hwa translates as “Life Review Session,” and it is a “weekly gathering to review and reflect on one’s ideas and acts according to the teachings of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il or Kim Jong-Un, or the Ten Principles.” During saeng-hwal-chong-hwa, certain students are targeted by the whole class and bombarded with scathing remarks.

3.3 Relational
Apart from physical and verbal punishments in the North Korean education system, there is also punishment from peers. Classmates discipline each other, mainly through bullying (outside of saeng-hwalchong-hwa). Their peers treat them in a hostile manner because upon seeing the teachers, to whom they look as role models, act openly antagonistic towards the poor students, they start to believe it is acceptable to act in the same way. As saeng-hwal-chong-hwa is a system that makes North Korean children accustomed to scapegoating the weak, the public shame their peers experience elicits apathy, not sympathy, and this apathy sometimes intensifies to resentment and results in bullying.

4. Miscellaneous: Construction work, mass games, propaganda
In addition to Agricultural Labor Support and Item Collection, students must also participate in construction projects, as well as various performances that take place on national holidays, such as the birthdays of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un, and for other special occasions.

Students are mobilized for dangerous construction work and assist either with municipal infrastructure, school buildings, railroad repair and even private housing of school personnel. Additionally, construction work required to newly build, maintain, and/or repair the school edifices is often completed by the students. Not only are they mandated to participate in hazardous construction labor, but they are also required to make or bring the materials necessary for the construction at their own expense.


The mass games in North Korea are known to have a lot of manpower. During the big Arirang festival about 50,000 children turn color cards at the same time to create a “animated” mosaic-like background. For Arirang performances especially, children practice tirelessly for 6-12 months. Casualties are inevitable when they practice for hours under the scorching sun. The celebration of the birthdays of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-Un consists of numerous individual performances across the nation, ceremonial parades, visits to monuments, songs/choir concerts, etc. As expected, children are summoned for these functions. The North Korean government also regularly assembles children through the school system for political campaigns and events. They are mobilized to march with posters and shout profane slogans for hours.

Child Labor outside the education system

Child labor exists elsewhere besides within the education system, as it happens in prison camps, orphanages and relief centers.

1. Prison Camps
North Korea differentiates their prisons according to the crime convicted. Those who are accused of ideological insubordination are sent to a kwan-li-so, which is a concentration camp mostly for those accused of political crimes. Even though the North Korean government firmly denies the existence of such places, there are five known camps. They are “villages” enclosed by electric fences and barbed wire. Up to 120,000 people live in each of these camps, where the children are treated with particular cruelty, but those who manage the camp keep them short of dying, knowing that they are indispensable as the next generation of laborers.

1.1 Labor
The children suffer from all kinds of child labor existing in the North Korean society, and additional labor needed at the camp. Despite their state of starvation, the children are made to spend most of their waking moments working where they have to meet certain quotas. Like the schoolchildren outside the kwan-li-so, the ones inside are required to collect scrap items. However, the amount the kwan-li-so children have to collect is considerably greater because the authorities are allowed to be especially harsh on these so-called prisoners. Next to that, manual labor is required. The children are given different tasks based on the season.

1.2 Education within prison camps
Each kwan-li-so is large enough to have several schools. However, the quality of the education given here is far worse than in the schools in normal society. In the standard school system, a student graduates after three years of middle school and three years of high school. The camp only offers schooling through middle school, where basic Korean language and arithmetic are taught by prison guards instead of trained teachers. As soon as the children have a rudimentary education, they are deemed ready and immediately sent to the coal mine or workplace.

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2. Orphanages and Relief Shelters
The children who live in an orphanage are forced to live a regimented, military-like lifestyle and are constantly subjected to the whims of their supervisors. Relief shelters are makeshift orphanages, with significantly less resources. The majority of the children who live here are
kkotjebi, who are homeless youth found begging on the streets. The government claims these establishments are meant to protect and manage homeless children. The living conditions in a relief shelter, however, are no better than a detention facility.

 OrphanageRelief shelter
Location3 in total (in North Hamgyong)1 in every disctrict

200-450 children

  • Lost both parents
  • Abandoned because parent remarried
  • Parents were sent to kwan-li-so

20-100 children

  • Kkjotebi (homeless young beggars)
  • Abandoned because of financial instability
  • Captured and returned from China
  • 70+ staff
  • Class monitors
  • 1 representative class president
  • 10 security guards
  • 1 class president
  • Feels like school and army
  • Couple of hours of class
  • Uniforms and neckties
  • Feels like prison and labor camps
  • No education but ideology classes
  • Three meals which consisted of corn stark meal, ground up rice plant root, porridge from noodle, corn rice, etc
  • It was never enough (only 1/3 of a bowl) so the children are resorted to stealing
  • Because of the hunger, everything they could get their hands on was eaten, such as frogs, birds, snakes and rats
FacilitiesOverall, facilities are betterOverall, facilities are very poor
  • Working on farms and in the mountains
  • Making bricks
  • Working for teachers personal needs
  • Working from sunrise to sunset
  • Transporting miscellaneous heavy items
  • Collecting firewoods in faraway mountains
  • Farming (pulling weeds, sowing seeds, etc)

3. Punishments

3.1 Prison camps

The children in prison camps are physically and verbally punished, just as it is done to children within the education system. The difference is that there are more punishments in prison camps. Besides, the children in prison camps spend the majority of their lives confined within electric fences and are taught to believe that this is as good as it will be. The cruel treatment and excessive labor are close to slavery and the prisoners are treated like animals. Sometimes, without any reason, the teacher takes it out on the kids and beats them over small mistakes. But the teacher is not the only one to discipline the student. The responsibility is instead passed on to a subordinate, the class chairperson (student). Generally, the teacher beats the chairperson and makes him beat the other children.

3.2 Orphanages and relief shelters
The authority figures would make the children run outside barefoot, thinking the children would run away if they had shoes. It is common for the children to be excessively abused as well in the orphanages and relief center. The workers would hit the children with wooden sticks and basically everything else that they could get their hands on.

4. Miscellaneous: outside the school system
While the schools, prison camps and orphanages are places where children are gathered and mobilized by the masses to work, there are more but less obvious spaces that exploit children to work. An example of this, are detention centers.

Many children end up in detention centers where the same work is done just as in the schools, prison camps and orphanages. Additionally, there are other places where child labor is used in North Korea. There is hidden footage of children, alongside adults who work to clear snow in an upscale ski resort. Without proper technology or machinery, the roads can only be cleaned with manual labor. The child workers are at great risk while the rich North Korea ski with no remorse.

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