The video was clear and stark. Its authenticity was beyond serious question. It would have shocked us if North Korea had not already dulled our capacity for outrage. Indeed, there are times when I think it has dulled even mine. Then, last December, came the videos of North Korean children set to work in coal mines, and carrying sacks of heavy stones to build railroads.
The Daily Mirror called it a “chain gang,” but the only chains were psychological, and the truth was bad enough: this government conscripts little children to do hard and dangerous work that only adults should do, and even then, only with heavy construction machinery.
Then, in January, a reporter photographed civilians, including children, clearing snow from a road so that foreign tourists and members of North Korea’s political elite could ski at Masikryeong, the resort Kim Jong-un built — it should not be forgotten — while the World Food Program pled for foreign governments to donate enough money to feed North Korea’s poor. This is the life of North Korean children that the Associated Press never showed you, or even tried to.
— News Headquarter (@newshqtoday) January 27, 2017
Most recently, the Daily NK described how the regime conscripts little girls to polish gemstones it exports for hard currency.
Trading companies affiliated with the Daesung General Bureau are reportedly seeking teenage girls with soft hands for employment as manual polishers at gemstone-processing plants. The report is one of the more unusual examples of the North Korean regime’s desperate bid to earn foreign currency.
“Young female students with smooth palms are being selected to work in gemstone-processing factories in cities across South Pyongan Province, South Hamgyong Province, and North Pyongan Province. These kids are being selected because it is believed that the best polish can be achieved by rubbing the jewels in the palms of their hands,” a source from South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on February 3.
“For this reason, teenage girls can be seen sitting in groups at the gemstone factories, diligently rubbing the jewels. The tiny jewels are so small that they are hard to pick up. The students sometimes grimace as they place the jewels between their two palms and rub away.” [….]
“After rubbing the gemstones with their hands all day, the young workers develop blisters and their skin begins to peel off. They are forbidden from complaining about the pain. Instead, they keep their heads down and work hard for eight hours every day,” the source said.
He added, “Those who complain about blisters receive no sympathy. They get kicked out of the factory and lose their jobs. So they have no choice but to endure. Instead of caring for the workers, the cadres at the helm of the operations are completely focused on fulfilling the quotas set by the Ministry of Foreign Trade.”
“Most of the laborers work so hard that they get calluses. When this becomes an issue, they’re told to leave the factory,” he said.
The meager wages earned by the workers reportedly amounts to 5,000 KPW per month, an amount that is insufficient to purchase a kilogram of rice. [Daily NK]
North Korea’s forced child labor has now drawn condemnation from Human Rights Watch, which is teaming up with other NGOs to bring evidence of those abuses before the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Jeon Hyo-Vin, 16, experienced forced labor in school almost daily, until she had to leave secondary school because of her family’s inability to pay the required cash payments. Kim Eun-Sol, 18, endured forced labor in school while she was a teenager. By age 13, she became an unpaid worker in a private home in order to survive since her grandmother could not support her. Her mother, who had left to earn a living in China, could not maintain contact with her daughter. [HRW]
See also this op-ed. Even as it enslaves more children at home, Pyongyang is enslaving more adults abroad to alleviate a “chronic shortage of funds,” even at the risk that more of them will defect. In its desperation to monetize the slavery of its people, including little children, Pyongyang will make itself all the more toxic to investors who could transform its economy — if that was what Pyongyang really wanted. Instead, it pursues a business model that relies on a smaller number of the gullible and unethical partners to meet the cost enforcing the enslavement and isolation of most of its people.
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Does Kim Jong-un care what some U.N. committee says? Almost certainly not, but his propagandists care very much. Their obsession with the regime’s image abroad has caused them to lash out at criticisms of the regime, even to the point of forcing North Korean diplomats to make arguments so implausible that they’re more demoralized than their audiences are persuaded.
But sometimes, the regime’s strategy of implausible deniability does work, at least up to a point. For example, a recent report by the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights credited Pyongyang for signing a convention on the rights of the disabled, while noting that it has refused to allow a U.N. Special Rapporteur or any U.N. representatives into the country to assess or verify its compliance with human rights standards.
So when Tomás Ojea Quintana, the new U.N. Special Rapporteur who replaced Marzuki Darusman in monitoring North Korean human rights issues, proposes to use Pyongyang’s accession to the Disability Convention as a keyhole to achieving broader improvements in human rights in North Korea, I can only shake my head in dismay.
“This initiative is a very useful step forward in the promotion and protection of all human rights in the DPRK and the implementation of recommendations from the latest Universal Periodic Review*,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.
“Ratification of the Convention will help the country address prejudice against people with physical, mental, sensory or other impairments. It should also serve to address other forms of discrimination to which certain groups may be subjected based on any other attribute,” he added.
Mr. OJEA QUINTANA stressed that it was now important for the government in Pyongyang to implement the treaty in full consultation with people with disabilities, and to allow technical experts to visit the country. “The ratification should also be used as an opportunity for the country to move forward in the implementation of the other human rights treaties it has ratified, and for it to engage more with human rights mechanisms,” he added. [U.N. Human Rights Council]
Mr. Ojea really ought to review the U.N.’s list of human rights conventions North Korea has already signed — almost as many as the number of arms control agreements it has signed and broken. Among those treaties is the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1990, and an optional protocol, in 2014.
By now, anyone remotely familiar with North Korea must know that its signature on a piece of paper is meaningless. It is all well and good to offer Pyongyang some incentives for meaningful cooperation, but any engagement strategy for North Korea must begin with the understanding that a signature alone is not meaningful. It must end with a threat of accountability and consequences, something to which the regime has proven surprisingly sensitive.
Thus far, Mr. Ojea hasn’t shown much understanding of those principles. At best, he’s in for a long breaking-in period while the North Korean people will go on suffering without his support. At worst, his office, which had become one of the few U.N. bodies that told the truth, will soon revert to the irrelevance and parody that have been more typical of U.N. bodies. We should all hope that he adopts a more realistic strategy soon.