Press Release: Investigate slavery and mass abuses in supply chain and export of goods and minerals, including coal from North Korea

Investigate slavery and mass abuses in supply chain and export of goods and minerals, including coal from North Korea


[Seoul] The Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights’ (Citizens’ Alliance or NKHR) report, titled “Blood Coal Export from North Korea. Pyramid scheme of earnings maintaining structures of power” is the first-ever investigation into the systems the North Korean regime uses to produce and export coal and other minerals and lucrative goods. The regime employs a method that most closely resembles a kind of pyramid scheme, involving quotas of goods extorted from citizens and massive amounts of forced labor in a vast network of detention and political prison camps. This pyramid of extortion and slavery – the latter of which amounts to crimes against humanity – is enforced through each Ministry and Party organ and is imposed on every citizen.


In particular, this investigation shows the link between the extractive industries, notably coal production – a top export commodity for the North Korean regime and the target of the most restrictive international sanctions – and the intergenerational discrimination which determines which citizens will reinforce the slave labor force in its infamous prison system.


“The whole extractive industry of minerals in North Korea in mines inside the vast network of prisons and political prison camps as well as mines outside detention system is stained with forced labor and mass abuses”, said Young Ja Kim, Director General of the Citizens’ Alliance.


The findings indicate that production in extractive industries is based on the state sponsored discrimination and bonded labor of the hostile songbun class, that primarily affects thousands of prisoners, but it also includes thousands of former ROK prisoners of war and their descendants, abductees from ROK and other countries and their descendants, and released prisoners of political prison camps; without possibility to change residence or to make individual decisions on workplace and education as well as providing substandard conditions of life including discrimination related to food rations.


“The fact that so many of South Korean citizens and their families are affected by the slavery system in North Korea should be a primary focus of the current South Korean administration, which says it championed human rights in South Korea in the past” – the Director General added.


The findings point to a joint criminal enterprise involving top structures of the state, military, Ministry of Public Safety and the Ministry of State Security (MSS), all of which are responsible for crimes against humanity identified in report of the UN Commission of Inquiry for DPRK. While MSS hunts for prisoners to fortify slave labor force in detentions, it also operates Customs Office to protect shipment of hidden cargo of drugs, gold, weapons by Bureau 39 (slush funds) and Second Economic Committee (weapons) that are exported with goods extorted from society and obtained through slavery labor.


This investigation shows that the current sanctions regime’s narrow scope means that it does not account for, among other things, the significant role of slave labor in extracting coal, thus underestimating the extent of North Korea’s exports. Based on our collection of testimonies with former political prisoners, officials, employers of military-mining complexes, as well as public information and satellite imagery analysis, we gathered data on the number of political prison camp mines and their workers that are excluded from official statistics on the coal mining industry in North Korea, which provided for a large amount of unaccounted for production.


NKHR also found an increase in coal production on satellite photos and expansion of boundaries of the political prison camps, especially what is known as Camp 18 in Bongchang, Bukchang County and its released prisoners area – Tukchang Labor District which is producing coal, even as sanctions were becoming more restrictive after 2016. While there is an abundance of coal for export, and visible stockpiles of coal on satellite photos, there are reported continued shortages of coal for hospitals, schools and citizens, except Pyongyang, and increases in electricity shortages since 2019.


While in recent years there has been an increasing focus of the humanitarian impact of sanctions in North Korea, there has been zero analysis of the humanitarian implications of lifting sanctions in return for steps toward denuclearization, which may expand this system of slavery.


“Concerned governments and those responsible for enforcing and revising the UN’s sanctions regime, should fully investigate North Korea’s export supply chain as it remains absolutely dependent on forms of forced labor and slavery, as well as other related crimes against humanity.”, said Nina Bang-Jensen, an expert in international criminal law who assisted in the evaluation of some of the evidence NKHR compiled for the report and has assisted in numerous similar investigations. “Without understanding and openly confronting that stark reality, it remains highly unlikely that progress on demilitarization or economic development will be realized.”