North Korea’s street children transition into paid workers

Children living at an orphanage in Pyongyang play outside the facilities. Image: Daily NK

North Korea’s homeless children (kkotjebi) are becoming less dependent on begging and more able to provide labor and earn money, Daily NK has learned.

“There are many cases where street children are earning money for the work they do, instead of just begging on the street. Some of them earn money by helping to move items owned by elderly residents at the markets or at train stations,” said a source in China close to North Korean affairs on August 6.

“Street children in their early teens will carry tools on their shoulders and fix the tires of trucks hauling coal. When drivers go off to eat, the children will fix the tires and get paid anywhere from 200 won for small jobs to 1,000 won for bigger ones.”  

He also noted that street children were notorious for stealing items and causing trouble for business people, which led to many reports to the police, but such incidents are waning. “The street kids seem to understand that it’s hard for them to survive if they steal and cause trouble like they did in the past,” he explained.

The street children have also recently started to form organized groups that control activities in their own specified “zones” while targeting areas with a lot of foot traffic when they beg. Such activities predominantly used to occur close to the markets.

“The kkotjebi don’t hang around the markets or the areas in front of train stations anymore,” said a source in North Hamgyong Province.

“They delegate roles to each other and operate in an organized manner so that they don’t all target the same areas. They seem to be more organized now in how they beg than in the past.”

The street children target areas with a lot of Chinese tourists, whose “guides tell them not to get too close to the children, and even call them ‘embarrassments to the country,’” she said.

Street children are generally sent to holding facilities upon arrest, but such sites are often ineffective at managing them.

The 2018 White Paper on North Korean Human Rights published by the Korea Institute for National Reunification quotes defector testimony stating that “[s]treet children are held in holding facilities but many of them end up running away due to the poor state of the facilities and the overbearing nature of the staff […] These holding facilities are also places where violence and sexual assault take place.”