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2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Korea (Democratic People's Republic of)

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 11 June 2009
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2009 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Korea (Democratic People's Republic of), 11 June 2009, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 23,900,000
Capital: Pyongyang
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: Not a member state

There was no change in the total lack of respect for trade union rights in one of the world's most authoritarian nations. The only trade union body allowed exists to support the ruling party.

Trade union rights in law

Freedom of association in Constitution and law: Article 67 of the Constitution of North Korea provides that "citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and association."

Furthermore, article 21 of North Korea's Foreign Enterprise Law states: "Employees working for foreign enterprises can form trade unions. Trade unions protect the rights and interests of the employees under the Republic's labour law and conclude a contract concerning working conditions with [a] foreign enterprise and supervise their implementation. Foreign enterprises must guarantee conditions for trade union activities."

However, the same law contains no provisions to protect workers from employer retaliation against those who might exercise the right to form a union, nor does it penalise employers who interfere in union matters. The law also fails to provide any basis to guarantee the right to collective bargaining.

Special labour law for Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC): The Kaesong Industrial Complex (located close to the de-militarised zone in between South and North Korea) was opened in June 2004 under a contract with Hyundai Asan Corporation and state-owned Korea Land Corporation of the Republic of Korea. A special law was drafted by the North Korean government, in consultation with the Hyundai Asan Corporation, and passed by the Supreme People's Assembly. There are no provisions in the law that guarantee freedom of association or the right to collectively bargain, and no protection in law for workers who raise complaints.

Repressive system of labour control: Article 30 of the Constitution says that "the State shall organise labour effectively, strengthen labour rules and fully utilise labour's working hours". Furthermore, Article 83 of the Constitution stipulates that all citizens of working age must work in full compliance with work discipline and working hours. The penal code provides for the death penalty for any individual who hinders the nation's industry, trade or the transport system, by purposely failing to fulfil a specific duty "even though he or she claims to be working normally". The penal code also states that anyone failing to carry out an assigned task properly shall be subject to at least five years in prison.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2008

In reality, there is no freedom of association in Korea. Independent trade unions are prohibited. The only authorised trade union organisation, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, is controlled by the single party, the Korean Workers' Party (KWP). It operates according to the old "Stalinist" model of trade unions, with responsibility for mobilising workers to meet production targets and providing health, education, culture and welfare services.

No collective bargaining: The government controls the most basic aspects of employer-worker relations. Workers do not have the right to bargain collectively. Government ministries set wages.

The state assigns all jobs. Joint ventures and foreign-owned companies have to hire their employees from lists of workers vetted for their "ideological purity" and drawn up by the KWP.

Kaesong Industrial Zone – government control and no unions: Approximately 33,000 North Korean workers are making clothes, shoes, watches and other light goods in this zone, which has about 90 factories. The North Korean government selects worker representatives in Zone workplaces, subject to the approval of the South Korean company management.

Recruitment of workers to work in the Zone is controlled by the North Korean government. While article 32 of the KIC Labour Law states that workers should paid directly, in cash, in practice this does not happen. Since the Zone was opened, the North Korean government has demanded that all salaries be paid to the government, and Zone employers have acceded to this requirement. After making deductions for a government controlled fund, the North Korean government pays the workers their salary.

The continued use of this indirect payment system violates an agreement on the operation of the Zone made between the governments of North Korea and South Korea.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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