Name: Sun-hwa Kim (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Female
Hometown: Kimjongsuk County, Ryanggang Province, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Garment worker
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 2019

„I lived in Kimjongsuk County, Ryanggang Province. I left North Korea in early 2019 and came to South Korea. After graduating from high school, I was placed in a factory that made clothes and worked there for more than 10 years. In North Korea, the state assigns people to workplaces. So people have no right to choose which work they do.

Basically, all factories and companies in North Korea are owned by the state. When I worked at the factory, there were about 70 workers, most of them women. Now only about 20 are working, because much of the factory operations have shut down. There are not enough materials and resources to run it. Other factories are all in a similar situation.

I worked, but I was paid very little. A whole month’s work earned me about one US dollar. That was close to receiving zero. I could only buy one kilogram of rice with it. Even so, I thought the workplace was okay. At least I could sit on a chair while working. In North Korea, you have to work at the assigned factory whether you are paid or not. So, at least it was better to work where I was physically more comfortable.

But the thing was, there wasn’t much to do because there wasn’t enough supply of materials or resources to run the factory. At that time, when there was no work, the state sent us to other places besides factories and made us work there. This was called mobilization. We were mobilized to work on road construction and rail construction, and in winter, logging in the mountains. This work was extra to what we did at the assigned workplace. It was difficult to live in North Korea with so many other forms of forced labour. We were often mobilized on Sundays, not to mention Saturdays. We worked at our workplace, we were mobilized, but we weren’t paid.

It wasn’t just me. It was the same for everyone. In North Korea, you go to work but you are not paid. On the contrary, employees have to give money to their workplaces. The factory demanded that the employees provide materials or give money to run the factory so that it could meet the task assigned by the state. So when you go to work, you can’t make ends meet. You actually get poorer. All workplaces nag you for money every day.  Some workers bribe their director so they don’t have to go to work for a certain amount of time. For example, a worker makes a deal with the director of the factory. He will pay a certain amount of money and he will be exempt from work for a year. During that time, he can do other things he wants to do, be it business, smuggling, or farming, to make money. In this way, people did other jobs to maintain their livelihoods.

The state often calls a few from each workplace to work for national construction projects. They are called Dolgyeokdae: temporary group organized to meet special needs such as work on construction projects. Once designated as a member of Dolgyeokdae, you have to leave your home, live together with other members at the construction site, and work for 3~6 months. A few from this factory and a few from that factory would work for some months in turns. People hate to be assigned to a Dolgyeokdae as they had to leave their homes for months of hard labour.

During the months of Dolgyeokdae, you have to pay for your own food and accommodation. Even though the state forces you to work, it doesn’t properly supply the materials and equipment needed for the work. You have to take your own tools for the construction work. The work at Dolgyeokdae is backbreaking, and for that you receive nothing. So people with money often avoid becoming a Dolgyeokdae by paying bribes to the head.

North Korean people do not receive rewards for their labour either at the workplace or for mobilization. Even if they go to work, they have to find another way to live. People’s lives are miserable because they don’t receive fair reward for their work. I know that many who are not North Koreans are even envious that North Korean people don’t have to worry about their employment, since the state gives you work. The reality is that you are forced to work at a given place without pay. North Korean people are literally under forced labour, every day and for the rest of their lives. I think guaranteeing labour rights is very important in ensuring people can have a decent life.“


Name: Myong-han Lee (pseudonym)
Year of Birth: 1960s
Gender: Male
Hometown: Pyongyang, North Korea
Occupation in North Korea: Overseas worker in Kuwait
Year of Arrival in South Korea: 1997

„Pyongyang is my hometown. I was born, raised, and worked there all my life. On the 6th of November 1996, I was on a plane from Pyongyang to Kuwait in a group of 20 or so labourers who were selected to be sent abroad. I worked for about five months in Kuwait, until March 1997. Then I left and came to South Korea.

We woke up at 5 a.m., began working on-site at 8. The work was supposed to end by 7pm. But this time was kept only one or two days in a week. On the other days, we had to work later hours. After dinner, we went back to the site, worked from 8pm until the morning. It was like that for 7 days a week, without weekends or days off. After a short amount of sleep, we had to wake up and drag our bodies to work yet again. As far as I know, the law in Kuwait doesn’t allow such long working hours, but it didn’t apply to us. Every day, the North Korean cadres coerced the workers into working, saying “Let us faithfully work and bring joy to our General (Kim Jong-il)”. Literally political propaganda, that was. It might be difficult for people from other countries to understand, but no one in North Korea says a word against it.

I never received wages during my five months in Kuwait. The North Korean company I belonged to was a private business on the surface, but was in fact under the Worker’s Party, in other words, state-owned. So, the company sent all the money we earned to the party. At least they should have set aside some for us who actually did the work…

Once I had a chance to talk to a foreign worker from a different country. With broken English and body language, I asked him a question in my mind, „We work our asses off. Why aren’t we getting paid?“ He said he didn’t know. Then I asked, „They are supposed to give us 120 US dollars per month, but we are getting zero. How much do you get paid?“ He said 650 dollars. After hearing that, I became curious. Surely our company must be also receiving money from our work, around 650 dollars per person? 

What was strange at the time was that there was barbed wire around the site where North Korean workers worked. On sites where other foreigners worked, there was no barbed wire. It was only on ours. Out of curiosity, I asked the interpreter of our company „What is the meaning of this barbed wire?“ The interpreter replied, „There are hundreds of multinational companies in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti law stipulates that barbed wire should be installed on sites where foreign workers worked.” I believed that. Then, when I told about this to a person in the South Korean embassy after I escaped the site, he laughed and said it was nonsense and that there were no such laws in this country. After all, the wire was put up by the North Korean authorities. They did that to prevent anyone escaping, and Kuwait allowed that because they are concerned about illegal stay issues. 

When people hear ‘human rights in North Korea’ they think of physical beating or torture. During my time in Kuwait, I didn’t experience that. But what I experienced was labour exploitation—literally. The level of labour exploitation was simply insane: not being paid a penny for five months of work, 14~15 working hours a day without a proper day off. But at the time, I didn’t know that it was a human rights violation. I heard the term ‘human rights’ for the first time in South Korea. North Korean people don’t know what human rights are, let alone labour rights.

Here is what I think: to improve the labour rights in North Korea, North Korean people have to be enlightened first, whether they are home or abroad. Delivering information to them is the way. Turning back the clock, to 25 years ago in Kuwait, I came to realize the unfair working environment I was in because I had contact with other foreign workers. In the same way, I hope North Korean workers abroad are given the chance to come across outside information in various ways. This outside information doesn’t have to be anything special. If it could make them see that their wages and working hours were unfair, that would be enough. They have no way of getting such information.

The problem is, most North Korean workers abroad right now would be in a similar situation to what I was in: blocked from accessing information. Otherwise, the authorities wouldn’t be able to control them. On the other hand, if workers abroad can access outside information, one day they will make their voice heard and recover their lost rights.“



“WE WILL NEVER STOP.” North Korean activists fighting for human rights back home

Ji Cheol-ho and Kim Keon-woo made separate perilous journeys to escape the brutality of daily life in North Korea and in search of a brighter future. It is in Seoul where Cheol-ho, 34, and Keon-woo, 32, first met in 2011. They found common cause in a desire to help people still suffering back home and others who, like them, had sought sanctuary abroad. The two men now dedicate their time working for Now Action for Unity and Human Rights (NAUH), an NGO based in Seoul that campaigns to defend human rights in North Korea and help those who escape. For the past two years, Amnesty has partnered with NAUH.  This culminated with Ji Cheol-ho and Kim Keon-woo addressing diplomats at the UN in Geneva in March 2019 , during a review of North Korea’s dire human rights record.

Here the two activists share their stories:

Kim My family was relatively well-off in North Korea, but we all suffered from the Great Famine in the 1990s. There was no food distribution throughout the six months before my family decided to leave. I was 11 years old when my mum told me, “let’s go to a better place and eat better food,” and we fled in 1998. The plan was to get to our relatives in Dangdong, China, not far from the border. We went across the Tumen river. Many people who try to escape North Korea die along this route. It was August and there was heavy rain. My mother nearly drowned, but the hardest part came when we made it to China. Without legal papers, we were always in danger of being sent back, where we could be sent to a labour camp or even executed. In China, we stayed at home most of the time, where I studied and learned to speak Chinese. When the police visited our home, we had to hide. We ended up staying in China for seven years, because we didn’t know how to get to South Korea. When we finally made it to Seoul through the South Korean Consulate in Shanghai in 2005, I found freedom. I graduated and had a job, but I found myself still struggling to afford food. At 17, I had only grown to 110~120 cm tall. I would eat anything I could get, like tree bark. I began to question if this really was the best a country could do for its people. After my brother and I escaped to China, we split up as we knew that together there was more chance we could be caught. We hoped to see each other again in South Korea but we didn’t know if that would be the last time we saw each other. For 15 days I took many buses and walked through forests as I tried to make it to South Korea through Southeast Asia. Every time someone spoke to me in Chinese, I would just smile and hope for the best. There was so much to process after I arrived in Seoul. My first impression was that it was a cool airport. I remember the fresh air. I was overwhelmed when I was reunited with my brother and mother, who had already made it to South Korea. For my first week in Seoul, I didn’t know what to do with my new-found freedom. I slept for a week. I used my freedom to sleep! Then I decided that I would only say yes to things I wanted to do. I wanted to study. That was freedom. The best thing about living in Seoul was that I was free to go wherever I wanted. In China, there was always the fear of being sent back. In 2011, at university I was introduced to Ji Seong-ho who founded NAUH. It may sound strange, but I didn’t know much about human rights abuses in North Korea. I’d seen two public executions when I lived there, but I was so young when we left, I didn’t know what that meant. Out of curiosity, I went to one of NAUH’s meetings. It was then that I realized that it could have been my family suffering these abuses. To bring positive change, we need to see more pressure from other governments on North Korea. Governments fear the opinion of their people. It is not possible for North Koreans back home to raise their voice now, so please keep speaking out about human rights abuses, so the North Korean government cannot ignore your voices. Thank you to Amnesty supporters for caring about human rights in North Korea. I hope that together we can improve human rights for everyone.

Ji I escaped North Korea in 2006 with my mother and brother, I was 22. Our father was supposed to join us later, but I never saw him again. We were told he was captured, tortured and died in North Korea. Earlier this year, I was able to honour our stories at the United Nations, to hold the North Korea regime to account for its abuses against its people and those seeking a better life. To have that opportunity was very important to me. My life changed in Seoul, but I knew that many people back home were still suffering so I helped set up NAUH in 2010. We started with street campaigns in Seoul about human rights in North Korea and expanded as we grew in resources and supporters. A year later, we started emergency rescues of North Koreans. I help North Koreans in China, particularly women, reach South Korea, and to adjust to their new life. Whenever I meet North Koreans, I see their courage. Back home, I was told that women who leave are the worst. I have a different view now and want to help these women. I talk to them in a North Korean dialect and it makes them feel at home. This is the work I need to do. It is the most precious work and it makes me happy to help them. Our work together culminated in a campaign to the UN in Geneva this past March, where we met with diplomats to talk about human rights. We presented testimonies and research to contribute to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on North Korea. Our report to the UN was on street children in North Korea. The abuses they experience are some of the worst. They have no opportunity to stand up for their rights, so as a human rights activist I wanted to do something to help them. Though human rights abuses are still prevalent in North Korea, efforts like ours remind people of what is going on. We will never stop working towards helping people in North Korea to realize their rights.

18. April 2021