NORTH KOREA: Children exploited by state, says report

[SEOUL, 2 February 2009] - North Korea forcibly mobilises its children as cheap labour, diverts their food aid and throws minors into detention centres because their parents have run afoul of the law, human rights groups said in a report.

The North's failing school system has led to an increase in drop-outs and illiteracy in the impoverished state, according to the report, obtained on Monday, from the Seoul-based Citizen's Alliance for North Korean Human Rights and The Asia Center for Human Rights.

"Child labour and economic exploitation have become widely spread and a customary practise accompanying the worsening economic hardship of the country," said their "Situation Report on the Rights of the Child in the DPRK (North Korea)".

Children in the poorest parts of the destitute state face the greatest difficulty in obtaining an education. The few textbooks available in their schools are usually works celebrating the North's communist party and leaders, it said.

Sent to scrounge

Children are often sent out to work at farms and factories or to scrounge for materials such as tin and wood that can be used by the state's powerful military or sold by local authorities, said the report, based on interviews with about 50 defectors.

"Consequently, it seems 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," it said.

International aid agencies who try to feed the neediest people in the country of about 23 million have placed numerous checks to make sure their food reaches its intended destinations, but the report said children can still easily miss out.

It said teachers in poor provinces, who are supposed to help distribute the food, instead sell it to students or merchants and that part of the aid is also diverted to children of the privileged class in the capital of Pyongyang and the military.

Those who remain in school were forced into two years of quasi-military service from the age of 14 in the "Red Young Guards" that takes them away from studies for several months.

The United States, European Union and others have criticised North Korea for having one of the worst human rights records on the planet, saying the reclusive state uses guilt by association to imprison relatives of those the North sends to its vast network of political prisons.

The report said the children of those imprisoned are forcibly put in custody and sent to facilities where they are "deprived of a basic education, forced to child labour and restricted of freedom".

The report noted some improvements in the condition of children, such as a North Korea cutting down on its use of torture of minors suspected of criminal offenses and easing penalties on children caught trying to escape the state.

The North has also increased its childhood vaccinations.

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