The paradox of industrial relations in North Korea

Thursday 6th October, 2016

A brief insight into North Korea’s labourers, both inside the country and in foreign states.

Mass mobilisations are a daily occurrence in North Korea./AP/Yonhap News

The official working day in both North and South Korea is limited to eight hours. Of course, few comply strictly to that regulation. The work environment and life of labourers is by no means a walk in the park. Every day, people become the victims of industrial accidents. North Korea, however, has no concept of limited liability, and blames the accidents on negligence on the part of the victim.

Kim Kwang-soo, 45 years of age, escaped North Korea in September 2015. Now living in South Korea, he testified that “North Korean laws do stipulate the time work commences, but not what time it ends. Without permission from an official, leaving work on one’s own accord would be considered an ‘act of self-centredness’. One would be subject to finger-pointing and heavy criticism.”

In relation to safety in the workplace, “Labourers are always mindful of accidents that could occur anywhere and at any time. They also try to make powerful friends who could get them out of national labour mobilisation movements. The people who end up getting injured in the workplace are those at the bottom rungs of society who lack those connections, as well as money. There is no compensation or medical cover for them – on the contrary, it is the victims who are blamed for causing trouble.”

Further, Kim stated, “Some victims are even accused of getting injured on purpose to retire from work. Victims who are injured multiple times are seen as repeat offenders, or ‘opportunists for retirement from labour’, and are treated with high suspicion.”

Cho Kang-hun, 38, was a North Korean foreign labourer who had a post in Russia. “The North Korean state sends foreign labourers not only to Russia, but to China, Vietnam, Mongolia, and Cuba. Of them, only a few are skilled technicians. Most of them end up working in dangerous conditions. The state demands that even minor incidents be reported immediately to the nearest Party-affiliated institute. Also, foreign labourers undergo rigorous indoctrination sessions and are made to promise their devotion to the nation. In turn, the state encourages them further by giving them the honorary title of national representative ‘treasures’.”

He explained further, “The money that they earn goes straight towards the North Korean state. In the case of death… the North Korean government can claim compensation from the receiving state for injuries and deaths that occur during construction, on behalf of the victim. Of course, the compensation goes straight towards the North Korean state. Meanwhile, the victim receives the title of ‘labour hero’.”

An interest paradox can be conveyed here, where those who are injured in industrial accidents inside North Korea are seen as traitors to the regime, whilst those who are injured overseas become admirable revolutionaries.


Reporting by Shin, Junsik.

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