What International Frameworks Would Effect Structural Change in North Korea?

Written by Daye Gang




How is it that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a fairly isolationist State under some of the world’s harshest sanctions, having experienced two transitions of power, one extreme drought and famine, and one global pandemic, still exists? The answer, necessarily broad within a very complex setting, lies in the resourcefulness and adaptability required by the extortionate demands of central leadership.

International and Domestic Sanctions

North Korea is subject to some of the most restrictive sanctions in the world: United Nations Security Council sanctions have been in place since 2006, progressively covering many of the goods North Korea trades internationally. Among other countries, the USA and Australia have imposed autonomous sanctions under domestic legislation. Magnitsky Act type legislation around the world lists North Korean institutions and individuals. Despite the sanctions imposed, and the many highly qualified experts dedicated to enforcing compliance, concerns persist that they are not effective against a State determined to survive.

Beyond Systemic Human Rights Abuses

It is common to derive profit from mass incarceration and associated prison industries, including in developed countries. North Korea is particularly well-known for its political prison camps, which also force detainees to carry out labour. North Korean prisons are particularly brutal, according to the findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which concluded that labour conditions often reach the legal threshold of slavery. The Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights recently released a research report, titled “Blood Coal Export from North Korea: Pyramid scheme of earnings maintaining structures of power”.This report lays bare how the North Korean government draws on prison labour and all its other resources to generate funds which are funnelled up to the top of the leadership pyramid.

Political prison camps are only one site of labour exploitation and human rights abuses: less well known are the overlapping structures of everyday oppression that affect every layer of songbun, or class, a system established through extensive planning in the 1960s to consolidate new power. In detention camps, detainee labour is uncompensated and associated operating costs are low, allowing goods produced to be sold at prices capable of undercutting similar goods on the international markets. On the other hand, free citizens are placed under comparably unrelenting burdens to meet quotas of goods, labour, or money imposed by their employer and by the political organisations to which they must subscribe. Depending on labour conditions, these are not as readily characterised as forced labour or slavery.

The Blood Coal report gives the following example: an average married woman with children, without State employment and working in the private markets to feed her family, is required to submit quotas of goods to her children’s school. She pays a stall fee and bribes to the officials in the private markets. Given that men must attend their assigned government jobs every day but are not paid enough money to support the family, the double burden of homemaker and breadwinner falls on many women. It is ironic that a State implementing those practices also has enacted legislation said to be for the advancement of women.

This average married woman also is a member of the Women’s League who impose large quotas of goods or money to be submitted at all costs. Such political organisations also receive orders from central government to draw on their membership for unpaid labour to build infrastructure projects. All interviewees reported that these obligations existed for citizens in all classes in some way.

In contrast to political prison camp labour, these are practices of labour and financial exploitation to which established international norms on forced labour and slavery do not apply so neatly. Whilst there is broad acceptance of frameworks for human rights conventions in international law, the fundamental question of structural liberation requires a different legal lens.

The Resilience of the State

Underlying the well-known human rights abuses is the usual machinery of money and power that drives them. It is within the financial model of the North Korean government, with its reliance on exploitation, that we must locate the human rights abuses and international crimes which have occupied the attention of international organisations.

All State agencies are responsible for their own operating costs. They must also meet a financial quota of foreign currency set by central government using waku, annual exclusive trading licences, granted only to those agencies who met their financial quotas in the last year. The more elite the agency, the higher the class of employees allowed to work there, and the higher the financial quota imposed. Employees must meet financial quotas at all costs or be purged. The foreign currency earned disappears into the dark rooms of the highest leaders. It is this higher class of employees, which enjoys many fruits associated with its labour and therefore are not easily seen to be victims of human rights violations, which allows structural exploitation to continue by holding the dual role of exploiter and exploited.

The negative incentive on elite classes to avoid purges and maintain their standard of living is a key factor in North Korea’s continued survival. The government’s response to the private markets springing up during the Arduous March was to install officials and impose stall fees. More recently, it has turned to hacking cryptocurrency and digital currency accounts. Any more favourable international trade conditions will only increase the burden of quotas on all citizens.


Advocacy on human rights violations in North Korea is now capable of supporting the more rigorous requirements of sanctions enforcement, corporate due diligence, civil litigation, and eventually criminal prosecutions for the most responsible. Elite employees will do whatever it takes to earn the foreign currency so coveted by the central leadership: for lasting change, it is worth considering how these extortionate relationships may be disrupted. For immediate consideration is the law reform under consideration in Australia to refresh its autonomous sanctions regime under the global push for the Magnitsky Act type legislation. Now, the question is: how to incentivise disruption by elite classes over maintenance of the status quo?

Photo credit: Micha Brändli via Unsplash

Daye Gang
Daye Gang
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Daye Gang is a Korean barrister at the Victorian Bar in Australia. She is also a PhD candidate at the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University, where she is researching restorative justice for sexual and family violence, and a consultant with the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights based in South Korea. She was a member of the bilingual research and global advocacy team for the Citizens’ Alliance reports discussed in this article. During the pandemic, she started a project to translate all North Korean laws into English at www.lawandnorthkorea.com. For her work, she won the International Bar Association Outstanding Young Lawyer Award in 2020.

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