North Korea’s exportation of laborers to foreign countries earns the Kim Jong-un regime part of the hard currency needed to develop its weapons and to keep its elites loyal. Recent studies indicate that at least 50,000 North Korean laborers are officially dispatched overseas, earning the Kim regime between $120 million to $230 million per year. However, recent data from China and Russia indicate that the number of North Korean workers officially dispatched to those countries may have increased dramatically in recent years, with an estimated 47,000 reportedly in Russia in 2015.
The program began with the exportation of North Korean labor to the Soviet Far East in the 1960s. To date, North Korean workers have been sent to 45 countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Currently, at least 16 countries are hosting North Korean workers. Although North Korea is not a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO), all countries hosting North Korean workers are ILO members.
For the more difficult jobs in construction or logging, the regime selects male candidates of good Songbun — North Korea’s loyalty-based social discrimination system — who are married with at least one child. They are on the fringes of the “core” class, loyal but poor.
Young women sent overseas as restaurant workers come from privileged “core” class families. Women sent to China as textile workers must also come from a “loyal” background.
The overseas jobs are difficult, but coveted. To go overseas, workers have to give a bribe of $100 to $200, liquor, cigarettes or dining coupons at high-end restaurants to those making the selection. After they cross the border, their passports are confiscated by their minders and the workers find themselves entrapped and subjected to very harsh conditions of work. Up to 90 percent of their salary is confiscated by the North Korean authorities, but the very little money left can still make a significant difference for the families left behind.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, the workers’ families received not money, but coupons to purchase food and electronics. In the 1990s, as North Korea’s economy failed, the coupon system collapsed, and the number of overseas North Korean workers declined. As the number began increasing again, the workers gained limited access to opportunities to earn cash. While overseas today, the workers continue to be under the strict supervision of agents of the North Korean regime. With the approval of the three site supervisors — the Workers’ Party secretary, the State Security Department (SSD) agent and the worksite manager — they may moonlight or be “subcontracted” by other foreign workers, if they bribe their bosses.
The North Korean worker ends up being exploited by his government, by the hosting country, by his supervisors and by other foreign workers. The loyal pauper is at the bottom of the heap, and the Kim regime knows it. Upon their return to North Korea, the SSD keeps the workers under strict surveillance for at least three years.
The workers abroad do not have any freedom of association or collective bargaining. Suspected dissent results in swift repatriation and harsh punishment. According to one of the former workers: “They put plaster casts on both of the worker’s legs and send him back. The casts are taken off after they cross the border. They let the workers go home if it’s a minor problem, but for bigger issues they are sent to a kwan-li-so (political prison camp).”
Social discrimination is rampant in the selection process. Only those of good Songbun are sent overseas. Health and safety violations are widespread. The scale of health and safety violations and the frequency of workplace accident-related injuries and fatalities may vary depending on location, industry and specialization. The fatality rate is high among loggers and construction workers. If loggers die on the job, the authorities wait for months to repatriate the bodies, until they have 10 coffins to put on the truck, to save on fuel cost.
Wage violations are rampant. Workers are not paid directly by the foreign employers. The workers do not even know what overtime work means. The laborers work between 14 and 16 hours a day, with no holidays, except perhaps one day a month. In most cases, the working conditions amount to forced labor. It is only the scale that may differ, depending on the hosting country, industry or specialization. Differences in the scale of forced labor are circumstantial, rather than the result of systematic efforts to uphold labor standards.
While continuing to claim it is a “workers’ paradise,” North Korea ruthlessly exploits its workers at home and abroad. The international community should urge North Korea to join the ILO. The international community must call on North Korea to abide by the obligations it assumed when it acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and its own domestic legislation to protect the rights of its workers, at home and abroad. North Korea should cease restricting access to employment based on one’s Songbun classification. Further investigation of the situation of exported North Korean laborers should be conducted, and the cooperation of host countries must be sought. ILO members hosting North Korean laborers should abide by ILO conventions, and must be held accountable if egregious violations of the rights of North Korean workers are perpetrated within their territorial jurisdictions. Responsible members of the international community should also consider developing a set of standards inspired by the Global Sullivan Principles. Companies along the supply chain tainted by violations of the rights of exploited North Korean workers should abide by those standards.
The presence of tens of thousands of North Korean citizens overseas may offer opportunities for access and interaction, despite draconian control and surveillance. Hosting states and employers should be persuaded to seek direct access to those workers and distribute materials informing them of their rights. However, the exportation of North Korean labor should be terminated through concerted international action if the North Korean regime refuses to improve the working conditions and the overall human rights situation of these workers.
• Greg Scarlatoiu is executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, located in Washington, D.C.