A video clip from North Korea showing two 16-year-old boys being sentenced to 12 years of forced labor for watching South Korean T.V. shows (K-dramas) was reported by the BBC this week. Experts agree the clip is most likely from 2022, created by North Korean authorities and distributed in the country for “ideology education.” South and North Development (Sand), a research institute that works with defectors from the North, had distributed the video globally.
Teens sentenced to modern slavery for “Reactionary Thought and Culture”
Watching K-dramas or listening to K-pop bands has long been outlawed under the repressive regime in North Korea. In the past, minors who broke the law were sent to do forced labor at youth labor camps and the punishment was usually less than five years. But a stricter law was recently passed titled “Reactionary Thought and Culture Denunciation” which bans foreign cell phones, entertainment from South Korea, Japan, and the U.S., even slang from South Korea and ramps up the punishment for any infractions
“North Koreans who violate the ban face punishments of forced labor or even the death penalty.”
A UN report found that North Korea used forced hard labor under extremely harsh conditions as punishment for even ordinary crimes for anyone held in either the short-term or long-term hard labor prison camps.
According to the 2023 Global Slavery Index, North Korea tops the world with an estimated over 2 million people living in modern slavery or forced to work by the state.
Without fair trial and human rights, forced prison labor a crime
International law allows for incarcerated persons to engage in hard labor as punishment for a crime when the sentence comes from a fair trial by a competent court and the implementation of the sentence respects internationally recognized human rights. But prison labor can turn into modern slavery if certain conditions are present.
“The extraction of forced labor can amount to enslavement if it is accompanied by aggravating circumstances that effectively destroy the juridical personhood of the victim.”
Based on how much control is exercised over the incarcerated, the measures used to prevent or punish escape attempts, the use of systematic violence, and extreme labor, lawful punitive punishment becomes modern slavery. North Korea consistently fails to provide the “most basic assurances of a fair trial,” and criminalizes the exercise of basic human rights.
Forced labor has long been used for the advancement of government projects such as mining, construction, and farming.
Prison slavery is never the answer
In the video, the narrator can be heard saying “They are just 16 years old, but they ruined their own future” and officers present also gave the teens’ names and addresses to the crowd. Based on the U.N. report, forced labor conditions for the teens will likely include exceptionally harsh working conditions, including extremely long working hours, starvation rations, bad living and hygiene conditions, denial of medical care, and frequent beatings for minor infractions and failing to meet work quotas.
One defector stated:
“For North Korean people, K- dramas are a ‘drug’ that helps them forget their difficult reality.”
Just for watching a fictional T.V. show these two teens, and likely countless others, are being imprisoned and put into modern slavery in North Korea. Freedom United takes the position that prison slavery is never the answer no matter where it happens or what the crime. Sadly, prison slavery doesn’t just happen in North Korea and examples of prison slavery can be found in countries that pride themselves on freedom. The “Exception Clause”, also known as the Punishment Clause, has made it possible for slavery to be used as a method of punishment in the U.S. through to the present day. This clause allows the government to legally subject incarcerated people across the United States to forced labor. But as in North Korea, what is legal is not what is just.
In the U.S., incarcerated people subjected to prison slavery or forced prison labor are coerced into working through the loss of privileges, visitations, good time earnings, commissary access, threat of solitary confinement, and even being tasered according to one lawsuit but you can help end this practice in the U.S. Join us in demanding all states and the federal government explicitly outlaw slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime and end the exception. Write directly to your legislature here. Urge them to support the Abolishment Amendment and help be part of ending prison slavery!