02/09/2009, 00.00
NORTH KOREA
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For Pyongyang children are cheap labour

by Pino Cazzaniga
Except for those in the capital, minors are increasingly denied food and an education. NGOs call for a North Korea policy centred on human rights, not nuclear disarmament.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – North Korea’s recent threats have re-activated diplomatic efforts over the nuclear disarmament issue. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) would like to see a shift in favour of human rights because their situation has deteriorated in the past year.

Child exploitation

North Korea has forcibly mobilised children from the poorest parts of the country as cheap labour; diverted food aid earmarked for them to the benefit of children of the capital and the military; and has thrown them into detention centres when their parents are condemned to forced labour camps on political grounds, this according to a report by the Seoul-based Citizen's Alliance for North Korean Human Rights and the Asia Center for Human Rights.

Children in the poorest parts of the country face the greatest difficulty in getting an education. Those who remain in school are forced into two years of quasi-military service from the age of 14 in the "Red Young Guards, and “illiteracy rates have increased and the overall level of academic achievement in North Korean youth has decreased in most areas except for Pyongyang and a handful of other areas,” the report said.

North Korea’s political geography

As far as citizens are concerned the country is divided into three areas. The capital constitutes a privileged enclave whose residents are well fed and well educated as descendants of the Communist elite that founded the regime. A second area is represented by the other provinces whose residents need police permission to travel; living in chronic poverty that turns into outright destitution when famine and other economic crises hits. A final area is constituted by concentration camps, home for political dissidents and would-be refugees from the regime.

North Korea’s gulag is the focus of NGO attention. In December a Japan-based human rights group, ‘No Fence in North Korea’, sponsored an International Conference for the Abolition of Concentration Camps in North Korea.

The conference’s main guest speaker, US human rights expert David Hawk, said: “There should also be international thought and attention not only to disabling and dismantling the nuclear production facilities at Yongbyon, but also to disable and dismantle the prison camps in North Korea.”

According to the group, there are as many as 300,000 political prisoners held in labour camps in remote regions of North Korea, with many subjected to torture and summary execution.

Human rights at the centre of any North Korea policy

NGOs are conscious that whilst awareness raising may be important it is not enough without political backing. For Rabbi Abraham Cooper, vice-chairman of US-based North Korea Freedom Coalition, which represents more than 70 international NGOs, diplomacy focused on denuclearisation has failed to produce results, which is why he is urging US President Barack Obama to shift tactics

Rabbi Cooper said that human rights should drive US policy vis-à-vis North Korea, noting that the leverage of human rights issues by the United States bore significant fruit in ending the Cold War.

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