Civil society in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is characterized by high levels of social mobilization. Schools are not exempt from this, and the education program therefore includes a strong component of extracurricular activity. This is not unique in itself, for many education systems worldwide include such activities, which are typically defined as being voluntary in nature, oriented toward social engagement and usually carried out through the activities of clubs and societies. However, the scope of student mobilization in the DPRK has advanced significantly beyond this to activities that resemble child labor, and this has resulted in conflicts with a number of United Nations agencies and conventions, most notably the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), as well as numerous NGOs focused on human rights in the DPRK. The essence of the conflict between the DPRK and the international community as represented by these organizations lies in the extent to which child mobilization in the DPRK simply involves economic production, and therefore cannot be meaningfully related to the education curriculum. This chapter outlines the course of this conflict and discusses the prospects for future amelioration.

Perhaps the first question to ask is why the issue child labor arises in the first place in the DPRK, and this causes us to consider a number of ideological and economic factors. First, the DPRK economic system has its roots in the model of a planned socialist economy, characterized by near total government control over the allocation of labor and by high levels of social mobilization. In short, the government decides who works where. Second, the DPRK appears to suffer from a chronic labor shortage, fundamentally caused by the lengthy period of conscripted military service undertaken by all North Korean men and significant numbers of North Korean women from age 18 onward, as well as by the scope of paramilitary service. Third, the DPRK is a militarized state with a militarized economy, where it is commonly estimated that 40—50 percent of all production is carried out by or on behalf of the military (Bermudez 2001). They have first call on the nation’s resources, and this relegates the civilian sector to a technologically inferior position, where it is more dependent on an unskilled and semi-skilled workforce to carry out fundamental tasks. Finally, while a significant market economy sector has emerged in the DPRK, this trend has not been accompanied by any corresponding development of a legal framework to regulate employment practices (Lankov et al. 2017, p. 157). Characteristically, the government has simply relinquished control over wide areas of governance within this sector, and that makes it possible for child labor to flourish, especially since a large proportion of the population lives in extreme poverty.1

This is why over many years testimony from refugees and defectors from the North has cumulatively painted a picture of the multi-faceted ways in which school-aged children have been directly involved in economic production, both because their labor is free and because of shortages of labor within the overall workforce. This has caused UN agencies to focus on a number of key areas and activities, and in 2017 it led the Committee on the Kights of the Child (CRC) to state:

[it remained) seriously concerned about consistent reports of children continuing to spend a considerable amount of the time allocated to education on performing different types of labour, including agriculture and construction projects that sometimes involve massive mobilization for periods of one month at a time, and cases of students spending their afternoons performing tasks for teachers, such as working in fields and transporting firewood.

(Committee on the Rights of the Child 2017, p. 2)2

International organizations place a premium on ending child labor as it exposes children to dangerous environments and hinders both their development and their formal education. Moreover, they argue that child labor must be abolished because, unlike adults, children are unable to demand due rights in dangerous or unfair situations. The international community’s views on child labor can best be understood by referring to ILO documents, which in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child define a child as an individual under the age of 18 years and set the target population for measuring child labor at all persons in the age group from 5—17 years. The ILO identifies four major categories for child labor, namely, (1) production for household end use; (2) work performed for pay or profit; (3) unpaid trainee work by children for the purpose of acquiring workplace experience or skills; and (4) volunteer work, comprising non-compulsory work performed for the benefit of other parties without pay? As of 2016, 152 million children worldwide in this age group were engaged in child labor, comprising 64 million girls and 88 million boys. Some 71 percent worked in agriculture, mainly in Asian and African countries, while roughly half were engaged in work assessed as directly injurious to their health, safety and moral development. The overall trend both for the total number of child workers and for the proportion engaged in hazardous work has been downward since 2000, the former from 245 million to 152 million, and the latter from c. 170 million to 72 million. While there are many obvious issues in assembling accurate statistics across multiple self-reporting jurisdictions, this trend largely reflects greater awareness of the dangers and unfairness of child labor.

However, the extent of child labor in the DPRK is difficult to gauge because as a nonmember of the ILO, it is not subject to UN scrutiny, nor is it included in the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (ІРЕС)? a program established by the ILO in 1992 which focuses on the abolition of child labor in over 90 countries. However, the issue is serious enough for the DPRK to attract criticism from other UN agencies, notably the CRC, which in 2017 advised the DPRK in the following terms:

While noting that national legislation prohibits child labour and the State party' s position that child labour has been abolished as children are required to attend only three weeks per year of “school practice”, the Committee remains seriously concerned about information on children being requested to perform extensive labour tasks that interfere with their education, physical and mental development and well-being. The Committee is seriously concerned about:

  • (a) The fact that the State party’s labour laws do not prohibit harmful or hazardous work for children under age 18;’
  • (b) Children being requested to volunteer extensive periods of their day to work on farms and in mines, collect wood in the forests, weed in neighbourhoods and local towns, repair railroads, clean statues and participate in forestation initiatives and construction projects (referred to as “economic assignments ”), which interferes with their rights to education, health, rest and leisure, and the practice of exempting children from these tasks in exchange for money;
  • (c) Children being requested to participate in mass agricultural mobilizations, with long working hours per day and occasionally for one month at a time, and their being away from their families for that period;
  • (d) The practice of accepting children aged 16 and 17 to dolgyeokdae (military-style construction youth brigades) for 10-year periods, which entail long working hours and heavy physical work, and curtail children’s access to education.
  • (Committee on the Kights of the Child 2017, p. 13)6

In formal terms, then, what does child mass mobilization in North Korea consist of, how is it organized, and how does it depart from international norms? The DPRK authorities define child mobilization activities as educational, and include such activities as tree planting and production labor as part of the school curriculum.' Child mobilization also takes place outside the formal curriculum in the form of club activities during school hours and after school, where children usually collect firewood, mushrooms and other edible or medicinal plants. In particular, they are mobilized for farming to transplant rice in spring, weed fields in summer and harvest crops in fall. Children are also sent to other regions for periods of time to do farm work. They may be mobilized not just during the busy farming seasons to cover labor shortages, but also when there are major construction projects in their area such as apartment or factory construction, where during school hours, they may be called upon to transport construction materials or perform miscellaneous tasks at construction sites. The authorities insist that such activities are educational in that they help the students to understand the lives of peasants and workers, but children from the families of high cadres and children in gifted student programs are widely exempt from such work, while the offering of bribes by parents to the school to exempt students from participation is also a common strategy. Such practices would not occur if mobilization activities were seen and accepted as an integral part of the school curriculum instead of an intrusion on a legitimate curriculum, and this is where the question of the difference between education and child labor naturally arises.

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