Child labor continues in North Korea’s state construction projects

Kim Jong Un visits an orphanage in Pyongyang in 2015
Kim Jong Un visits an orphanage in Pyongyang in 2015. Image: KCNA

North Koreans have long avoided being pulled into construction work in Samjiyon County due to the construction site’s poor working conditions. Recently, however, sources in North Korea reported that government organizations in need of workers have been paying people to work at the Samjiyon construction site.

“Organizations like the Socialist Women’s Union of Korea and the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League are paying the homeless to go to the Samjiyon construction site to help meet their quotas of laborers sent to the site,” a Ryaanggang Province-based source told Daily NK.

The compensation for one day of work at Samjiyon for a construction work is around 20 yuan, or 60 yuan for three days of work along with 20 yuan to cover transportation costs.

Temporary works hired in this way face difficult conditions at the construction site, however. “They aren’t part of any specific unit so construction site officials give them more work than normal and tell them to find their own accommodations,” the source said, noting that “they’re on their own once they’ve been paid.”

The number of workers each organization must send to the Samjiyon construction site differs depending on the projects the organization has received. If, for example, an elementary organization part of the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League is tasked with constructing one apartment building, they must supply enough workers to finish the completion of that building.

The Youth League, Socialist Women’s Union, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, factories and even law enforcement agencies have all faced similar tasks handed down by the government since the start of the Samjiyon construction project.

“Factories can send their own workers to the construction site, but other organizations like the women’s union are political groups whose members already have jobs,” said the source. “How can the Kim Jong Un think that the Samjiyon modernization project is more important than people making a living?”

“It has become more difficult than in the past to just forcibly mobilize people to the project,” said the source. “Organizations have to pay workers to make up for what their losing by not going to work.”

In the past, it was possible for the government to mobilize people through patriotic spirit alone, but the absence of the state public distribution system means that this is no longer the case.

“People now measure whether the Samjiyon project is benefiting their own lives, no matter how much the government talks about it developing the country through the creation of a tourist zone,” the source said.

Meanwhile, there are continued reports that young children are being mobilized into national construction projects, including the Samjiyon modernization project. The Daily NK found that state organizations are paying teenagers younger than 17 years old to work on construction sites, although no children have officially been hired to work on the Samjiyon modernization project.

Many of these children are homeless and are working on construction sites despite their young age.

“The Samjiyon modernization project needs to be finished more quickly now and it’s getting harder to find people to work on the site, so organizations are finding whoever they can,” a separate source in Ryanggang Province reported. “Officials aren’t putting really young children to work but teenagers, who are considered work-ready, are being mobilized.”

There are no procedures in place among Samjiyon construction officials to investigate the ages of workers and decide whether they are fit to work.

“There are workers who are less than 17 years in age, but, honestly, some workers look younger than they really are because of their small body frames and malnutrition,” said the source.

Members of youth shock teams mobilized to the construction site are generally from poor families and look like kids because of malnutrition.

During a recent visit to the Samjiyon construction site in October 2018, Kim Jong Un stated, “It is outstanding that our Party members, workers and soldiers, along with young students are making every effort to support the modernization of Samjiyon” and, “As an entire nation, we need to continually heighten the social atmosphere aimed at supporting the Samjiyon County construction project.”

The international community, however, has expressed concerns about the mobilization of young people on labor-intensive construction protects and the state’s promotion of physical work as loyalty to the regime.

During the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on North Korea on May 9, Sweden remarked that children are being used in public projects such as the Samjiyon modernization project and asked how children are being hired and what kind of conditions they are working in. International focus is now on how North Korea will respond.

Jang Seul Gi is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to