- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

PRAGUE — Czech authorities have decided to end the practice of having North Koreans work in Czech factories under what one human rights organization has described as “slave” conditions.

“We have decided not to offer new work visas to North Korean citizens and not to prolong the existing visas,” the Interior Ministry official responsible for asylum and migration policy, Tomas Haisman, said in an interview.

The ministry announced the decision, citing October’s U.N. resolution condemning and imposing sanctions on Pyongyang because of its nuclear-weapon test. But Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Opletalova said, “This is an administrative — and not a political — decision.”

The plight of North Korean contract workers, who are often reported to be kept on a tight leash by government agents and see much of their wages funneled to Kim Jong-il’s regime, has been highlighted in recent months by the U.S. State Department and rights organizations such as the U.S.-based Freedom House.

The number of such workers worldwide has surged as Pyongyang faces a shortfall of foreign currency following international sanctions, according to Radio Free Asia, which estimates about 70,000 North Koreans are working abroad.

About 400 North Koreans work in this former Soviet-bloc country, mostly as seamstresses, according to different sources.

Selected by the Communist Party for contracts of up to three years, “North Korean workers give half of their monthly salary to the government and receive the other half during their stay,” said Kim Tae-san, a former North Korean diplomat in Prague who was responsible for “controlling” his compatriots.

Kim Tae-san, who later fled the Pyongyang regime, said in a telephone interview that average wages of about $275 per month were paid directly to the account of a company which he managed.

The number of North Koreans working under such terms in the Czech Republic has risen from about 150 five or six years ago, he said.

The situation with North Korean workers is not new; the communist rulers of former Czechoslovakia hosted thousands of guest workers from “brother countries,” notably Vietnam, Cuba and Angola, who were obliged to send part of their pay back home.

The Czech charity and human rights body People in Need has slammed the continuing practice.

“Times have changed, yet these people are no different from modern-day slaves,” it said recently.

Pyongyang still exerts its influence at the Snezka car-accessories plant at the small town of Nachod, about 130 miles north of Prague, where 82 North Korean seamstresses live and work under the watchful eyes of their “translator.”

They do not communicate with the plant’s other workers and flee visiting journalists.

“They work harder than the others, but only receive half their wages. The rest is sent to the regime,” said Ania, a Polish worker who has nevertheless managed to have short conversations with the North Koreans.

Factory director Miloslav Cermak is full of praise for his North Korean work force.

“They are my best employees, the most skilled and the most hardworking,” he said. “I pay them. After that, I do not know what they do with their money. I do not have to tell them how to spend it.”

The plant director argued that the experience will broaden the minds of the workers, impart “democratic values” and contribute to “ideological subversion” of the regime.

But the State Department’s human rights report last year said the North Korean women “worked in extremely harsh conditions in garment and leather factories in several locations” in the Czech Republic.

In a separate report on people trafficking, the State Department noted reports that North Korean workers in the Czech Republic and other countries “are controlled by North Korean ‘minders,’ giving rise to allegations that their work is forced or coerced.”

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