North Korea has the largest number of modern-day slaves in the world, with just over one in 10 of the population subjected to forced labour at the hands of the repressive state.
The shocking abuse, which includes young schoolchildren being coerced into exhausting manual work, is outlined on Thursday in the newly released 2018 Global Slavery Index, the largest survey in the world of human slavery and forced marriage.
Based on 71,000 individual interviews in 48 countries, the report by the Walk Free Foundation – a human rights group campaigning to end slavery – concludes that an estimated 40.3 million men, women
About 2.6 million of them toil unseen behind the closed borders of the Hermit Kingdom. Such is the extent of their mistreatment that the Foundation dedicated a spin-off report specifically to shine a spotlight on their plight.
Of 50 defectors interviewed over the course of a year, all but one described servitude either as children or adults, or in some cases both.
Kim Jong-un regularly doles out advice to North Korean workers, in this case at a machine factory in a coal mining complex
Kim Jong-un regularly doles out advice to North Korean workers, in this case at a machine factory in a coal mining complex Credit: KCNA/Reuters
Their accounts dated from 2011-2016, in a timely reminder of the grim reality of North Korean life under the current regime, despite leader Kim Jong-un’s sudden diplomatic charm offensive.
Child labour, through communal activities called “mobilisations”, is an integral part of North Korean society. Pupils, even of primary school age, are required to work for up to two months at a time in back-breaking farm work or manual labour like collecting discarded coal by railway tracks.
Schools, and not the children, receive payment for the work. Any students refusing to participate risks punishment or even expulsion.
“I constantly did farm work until the sixth year in elementary school. We did everything by hand, or with hand hoes and buckets,” testified one male defector.
“In the spring, we had to work for about one month in the summer, when we did weeding. We finished with our classes in the morning and then we spent the afternoon working,” he said. “In the autumn we worked longer, for about two months, as there was a lot of work associated with the harvest.”