[ Country-by-Country Reports ]

NORTH KOREA (TIER 3)   [Extracted from U.S. State Dept Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2009]

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is a source country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. The most common form of trafficking involves North Korean women and girls subjected to involuntary servitude after willingly crossing the border into the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Many of them are from North Hamgyong province, one of the poorest provinces in the country, located near the Chinese border. Once in China, they are picked up by traffickers and sold as brides to PRC nationals, often of Korean ethnicity. In other cases, North Korean women and girls are lured out of North Korea to escape poor economic, social, and political conditions by the promise of food, jobs, and freedom, only to be forced into prostitution, marriage, or exploitative labor arrangements once in China. North Koreans trafficked into or within the PRC are often passed from one trafficker to the next until they reach their ultimate destinations. In some cases, women and girls may be sold to traffickers by their families or acquaintances. Women sold as brides are sometimes re-abducted by the traffickers or are sold by husbands who no longer want them. In some cases, North Korean women are sold multiple times to different men by the same trafficker. Trafficking networks of Korean-Chinese and North Korean men operate in Northeast China and along the China-DPRK border, where they seek out North Korean women and girls. There are some reports that businessmen who operate along the China-DPRK border use their trade routes along the Yalu River to traffic North Korean women into China. While many women trafficked into China are sold as brides, some North Korean women in China are forced to work in the highly exploitative sex industry, including as prostitutes in brothels and in internet sex operations. Many victims of trafficking, unable to speak Chinese, are held as virtual prisoners. The illegal status of North Koreans in the PRC and other Southeast Asian countries increases their vulnerability to trafficking for purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. NGOs estimate that tens of thousands of North Koreans presently live in China, more than half of whom are women; according to some estimates, over 80 percent of North Korean refugees are victims of human trafficking.

The North Korean regime continues to use forced labor as part of an established system of political repression. North Korean do not have a choice in the jobs they work and not free to change jobs at will; the DPRK regime determines what work each citizen will have. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in political prison camps are subjected to reeducation through labor, a common punishment in which prisoners, including children, are forced to participate in logging, mining, and crop tending. Reports indicated that conditions in camps for political prisoners are extremely harsh. Prisoners receive little food, little if any medical care, and many are not expected to survive.

While exact figures are unknown, estimates of the number of North Korean contract workers recruited by the DPRK regime to work overseas for DPRK entities and firms vary widely, ranging from 10,000 to as high as 70,000. There continue to be credible reports that North Koreans sent abroad are subjected to harsh conditions, with their movements and communications restricted by DPRK government ‘minders’ and facing threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in North Korea if they attempt to complain to outside parties. Worker salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money for itself, claiming fees for various “voluntary” contributions to government endeavors. Workers only receive a fraction of the money paid to the North Korean government for their work. Countries in which North Koreans reportedly work through such arrangements include Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Angola, China, Mongolia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. Approximately 10,000 to 20,000 North Koreans have worked in the logging industry each year in the Russian Far East since 1967. Wages of some North Korean workers employed in Russia reportedly were withheld until the laborers returned home, making them vulnerable to deception by North Korean authorities, who promised relatively high payments. North Korean workers at joint ventures with foreign investors within the DPRK are employed under arrangements similar to those that apply to overseas contract workers. –

The North Korean government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. The government does not acknowledge the existence of human trafficking, either within the country or transnationally. The DPRK government does not differentiate between trafficking and other forms of illegal border crossing, such as illegal economic migration or defection. The regime actively punishes trafficking victims for acts they commit that are the direct result of being trafficked. Furthermore, the government contributes to the problem of trafficking through its forced labor prison camps, where North Koreans live in conditions of servitude, receiving little food and little if any medical care.

Recommendations for North Korea: Recognize human trafficking as a problem in North Korea distinct from people smuggling; institute a systematic victim identification procedure to identify and protect victims of trafficking; cease the punishment of trafficking victims for acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked; and support NGO presence in North Korea to assist victims of trafficking.

The DPRK regime made no effort to combat trafficking in persons through law enforcement efforts over the last year. The government denied that human trafficking is a problem, claiming it is not allowed and therefore does not exist in the country. Little information is available on North Korea’s internal legal system. It is doubtful that North Korean laws are adequate to address the trafficking problem; there are no known laws that specifically address trafficking. Trials in the DPRK are neither fair nor transparent, so it is unclear under what provisions of the law, if any, traffickers are prosecuted. Article 150 of the Penal Code criminalizes inter alia the abduction, sale, or trafficking of children, but there are no known laws that address the trafficking of adults for labor or sexual exploitation. The penal code criminalizes crossing the border without permission and defection. However, the question of how laws are applied in North Korea is usually more important than their terms. The laws used to prosecute traffickers are those that seek to limit all cross-border migration, including refugee outflows, and often wind up harming trafficking victims. Without due process in criminal proceedings, the government sends political prisoners and some criminals to prison camps where they are forced to engage in harsh labor. The regime’s claimed crackdowns on “trafficking networks” are a result of its desire to control all activity within its borders, particularly illegal emigration, rather than to combat trafficking in persons. There were no reported trafficking prosecutions or convictions during the reporting period.

The North Korean regime does not recognize or make any attempt to identify trafficking victims, nor does it provide any protection for, or assistance to, trafficking victims. In fact, victims often undergo severe punishment by the regime if caught in an attempt to cross the border or if deported back to the DPRK through invocation of the same cross-border migration laws used to punish the traffickers themselves. No distinction is made between trafficking victims and transnational migrants. North Koreans forcibly repatriated from China, including a significant number of women believed to be trafficking victims, are often jailed and forced into prison camps, where they may undergo torture, forced labor, sexual abuse by prison guards, and other severe punishment. Repatriated victims who are suspected of having become pregnant in China are reportedly subject to forced abortions, and prison authorities kill some babies born to repatriated victims while in detention. The North Korean government places a priority on controlling all activities within its borders; protecting individuals from mistreatment, exploitation, and retribution are not government priorities. The government did not ensure that trafficking victims are not penalized for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of their being trafficked.

The North Korean government made no significant efforts to prevent human trafficking. It did not acknowledge the existence of human rights problems, including trafficking in persons. The DPRK does not allow indigenous NGOs to exist, and the few international NGOs permitted to operate in the country work under intense government scrutiny. North Korea has not ratified the 2000 UN TIP Protocol.