Forced labor prescribed for North Korea’s malnourished street children

North Korea’s street children, known as kkotjebi, held by the state in designated facilities are being subjected to forced labor and suffering from malnourishment because holding facility staff are stealing from their food rations, according to sources inside the country.  

“I recently saw a security officer tell a street child that he would provide them with something to eat as he took them away,” said a North Hwanghae Province-based source on August 16. “The children don’t resist, but they are taken to farms and forced to work.”

He added, “When the authorities gathered everyone to plant cabbage last August, street kids in their late teens were also mobilized. The kids worked and got their own share of vegetables to eat, but they looked so pitiful being forced to work like that.”

North Korea may have violated the clause in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child pertaining to the prohibition of forced labor of children under the age of 18. North Korea signed the treaty in 1990.

However, there is a need to more closely examine whether North Korea violated the treaty, experts say.

“There may be cause to argue that North Korea has forced children under 18 to work and thus violated the treaty,” said International Coalition to Stop Human Rights Crimes in North Korea Secretary-General Kwon Eun Kyoung.

However, she added, “We would need to confirm whether the street children in question were under 18 and whether they were actually forced to work or received fair payment for their labor.”

Daily NK recently reported that many street children in North Korea were no longer dependent on begging to obtain food and some were getting paid for work they were doing, a relatively recent development.

Other sources reported that street children are facing terrible conditions in the holding facilities and are suffering from malnourishment.

“Some facilities do a good job of following the orders sent down by the central government, but others are in extremely poor condition and essentially like prisons,” a source in South Hwanghae Province said.

“The children beg or try to find things to eat on the streets, but once they enter the facilities, they’re unable to eat and just work all day.”

They are supposed to be given a fixed amount of 400 grams of food provisions per day, but the facility staff take some of it for themselves, he said, adding that “the children are in such poor nutritional condition that their faces are emaciated.”

The 2018 White Paper on North Korean Human Rights published by the Korea Institute for National Unification cites defector testimony saying that there are many cases in which street children run away from holding facilities due to the poor conditions and overly strict rules imposed by facility staff.

There are no street children in Pyongyang and other select areas largely due to crackdowns on their presence, a source in the capital city reported. But they can still be seen in areas outside of Pyongyang and other major cities.

“In Pyongyang or Wonsan (Kangwon Province) there are no street children but that’s because the state has cracked down on them. There aren’t a lot of street children at the train stations and markets in the provinces, but they’re sometimes there,” she said.

“Street children roaming around in groups of three or four can be seen in poorer areas of the country. Some of them even look like they’ve almost reached adulthood.”

Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to