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Ask A North Korean: What is forced labor like in North Korea?

A defector writes about being forced to work even as an elementary school student and the trauma it left him with

May 21, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

“Ask a North Korean” is an NK News series featuring interviews with and columns by North Korean defectors, most of whom left the DPRK within the last few years.

Readers may submit their questions for defectors by emailing and including their first name and city of residence.

Today’s question asks: What is forced labor like in North Korea?

David — who was born and raised in North Korea and lived there until he defected in 2012  — writes about the traumatic memories he still lives with from his time laboring as a child in the DPRK.

Got a question for David? Email it to with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.

Forced labor is a term used to describe when someone is exploited for work through coercion. This is common in North Korea, and I would like to tell you about my experience with the practice of forced labor. 

The number of North Koreans subjected to forced labor is difficult to determine but likely extremely high, given the difficulty of setting a clear boundary where voluntary labor ends and forced labor begins. 

So rather than focusing on experiences in general terms, I will focus on the forced labor that I experienced myself.  

I’ll leave it up to you as the reader to determine whether or not you think what I experienced was forced labor.


The first time I ever experienced forced labor must have been sometime in my childhood. I entered elementary school at the age of eight, and from first grade, I remember that I would finish my morning classes and have time to rest afterward. 

But from second grade, I would sometimes be mobilized for labor in the afternoons. I have no recollection of doing any hard labor. Instead, I was tasked with collecting grass seeds, watering trees and breaking rocks to make gravel for railway tracks. 

While this would be unbearable for South Korean children, it is so natural for North Korean children that we didn’t consider it to be particularly difficult.

I remember starting to work in earnest in third grade when I had just turned about 10 years old. Thinking of that time even now is traumatic for me. Most days, I would work after class rather than study, and the most difficult thing that I had to do was make bricks for construction by mixing mud and sand. 

As a 10-year-old, I would have to go to the mountains to dig up mud, load it on a cart, drag it to school, fetch water and use a mold to create thousands of blocks. Our teachers would supervise us, but if they were absent, the class president would be tasked with keeping an eye on the other students. I still feel sick thinking about how I wouldn’t be allowed to go home even when it got dark. 

This is just one example of many, and I suffered through much labor throughout my education. Weeding my teacher’s cornfield, harvesting cabbage, removing clover from firewood for the winter, working on the railroads, helping out in the fields, planting rice and much more. 

If I were to elaborate on all the times I was mobilized for labor, I would be writing for hours. It was very hard work to handle at such a young age, but my friends and I had no choice but to figure it out on our own.


Now that I am in South Korea, seeing young kids who are the same age as I was in elementary school, the differences between us are as stark as night and day.

Of course, I realize that if these same children were in North Korea, they would have no choice but to act in the same way.

While I wonder if they would be able to manage, I know that the reason my friends and I were able to do all that labor was not because of anything special about us. People simply adapt to their environment.

When I was in the military, the forced labor continued. Other than the time we spent on duty and having meals, I think we spent most of our time working. 

If there was an instruction to build a house with nothing but a shovel and a pickax, it was the military that did it. If there was an instruction to bring about a good harvest with nothing but seeds, it would be the military that made this happen. 

Something could be created from nothing, but in the process required blood and sweat accompanied by extreme pain. 

To this day, I still remember being told to cut down such a vast amount of wood that I did not think I could manage the strength I had. But not meeting expectations would mean beatings and being sworn at, so I had to complete the work without fail by nightfall. I had to do the work, come rain or shine.

Here in South Korea, many people ask questions about forced labor without much understanding of what it really entails. People believe that forced labor occurs when you commit a crime and are taken to the Aoji Coal Mine, re-education camps or political prison camps to do hard labor. But that is not necessarily the case. 

There are countless people who are exploited for their labor throughout North Korean society. Those who commit crimes are just exposed to even harsher working environments and are treated worse than beasts. 

Of course, the exception is the elite, who live on the blood and sweat of the exploited laborers and farmers. 


North Korean laborers live without even knowing that they are being exploited for their labor. When I came to South Korea and started working for a company, I could not believe it when I saw that I had received a salary for my work. 

I remember being puzzled for a while, thinking, “How on earth could I be given such a large amount of money as compensation for the work that I have done?” 

Of course, I now believe that I should be appropriately compensated for the work that I do, and I believe that it is only right that workers in North Korea should receive fair compensation for the work that they do.

I imagine there will be readers among you wondering whether North Koreans truly work without receiving any payment at all. I have much to say on this topic, but perhaps I will go into more detail about this next time. 

I will end this piece here today, leaving you with the hope that the day will come when all North Koreans will be freed from forced labor and that all will be paid a fair price for their work.



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