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2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Korea (Democratic People's Republic of)

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 8 June 2011
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Korea (Democratic People's Republic of), 8 June 2011, available at: [accessed 25 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 is no freedom of association in one of the world's most totalitarian regimes. The only trade union organisation authorised to exist – the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea – is controlled by the ruling party.


While the 2009 Constitution guarantees freedom of association and pledges that the state shall protect human rights, in reality trade union rights are essentially non-existent. A repressive system of labour control exists in the country, as the Constitution stipulates that the state shall organise labour effectively, strengthen labour discipline and fully utilise labour's working hours. All citizens of working age must work in full compliance with work discipline and working hours, and anyone that fails to carry out an assigned task properly is subject to at least five years in prison. The law also provides for the death penalty for any individual who hinders the nation's industry, trade or transport system by intentionally failing to fulfil a specific duty.

However, employees working for foreign companies can form trade unions by virtue of the Foreign Enterprise Law, which also stipulates that foreign enterprises must guarantee conditions for union activities. Still, the law contains no provisions to protect workers against employer retaliation, does not penalise employers who interfere in union matters, and fails to provide any basis to guarantee the right to collective bargaining. Activities at the inter-Korean joint Kaesong Industrial Complex are governed by a special law, which does not recognise freedom of association or the right to bargain collectively.


Background: Like every year since 2005, the U.N. General Assembly issued a resolution condemning the gross violations of human rights in North Korea. In March, North Korea allegedly sunk a South Korean warship and in November a South Korean island close to the border was bombarded by North Korean artillery, causing serious tensions between the countries. At the same time the North Korean people faced devastating food shortages at home, and the situation looks to get even grimmer in 2011. During the year, the ailing Kim Jong-Il's son, Kim Jong-Un, was also officially appointed heir to the leadership of the country.

Kaesong Industrial Zone – government control and no unions: Approximately 40,000 North Korean workers are making clothes, shoes, watches and other light goods in this zone, which has about 115 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 be 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.

No freedom of association: Independent trade unions are prohibited, and the only authorised trade union organisation, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, is controlled by the ruling party, the Korean Workers' Party. 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.

Bargaining futile as government has totalitarian control: The government controls all aspects of employer-worker relations, including assigning all jobs and determining the wages. Hence there is no right to bargain collectively. 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 ruling party.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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