More on Human Rights conditions of North Korean overseas laborers

The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) has released a new report entitled Human Rights and North Korea’s Overseas Laborers: Dilemmas and Policy Challenges, by Yoon Yeosang and Lee Seung-ju This report provides the most comprehensive picture to date on the scope and conditions under which North Koreans are contracted for overseas labor assignments.

NKDB estimates that the DPRK has sent about 50-60,000 laborers overseas to 40 countries to earn an estimated $1.2-2.3 billion on behalf of the state, although Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics suggested that this estimate foreign exchange earnings may be too high. Most North Koreans are employed in the mining, logging, and construction sectors, and candidates are selected through a state-administered process.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex, which marries South Korean investment and infrastructure with North Korean provision of labor primarily for processing-on-commission work, involves transfer of worker’s wages to the DPRK rather than to individual accounts. Thus, it is not surprising that North Korea might be tempted use the same model to contract workers overseas. Perhaps more surprising is that North Koreans naively compete to be selected for these overseas jobs, presumably because they anticipate an improvement of conditions for labor that exist inside North Korea.

The most disturbing elements of the report involve descriptions of substandard living conditions for North Korean laborers in almost complete isolation from the local populations, virtual slave-labor conditions at the workplace, absence of safety standards or injury treatment or compensation, forced contributions from labor salaries for their own upkeep, and virtually no holidays or time to rest.

[From CFR blog

North Korea gains foreign currency through human trafficking

Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said increased trafficking of its citizens is one of North Korea’s ways of earning foreign exchange.

North Korea, frequently ranked as the world’s worst human rights abuser, has lured between 50,000 and 60,000 of its citizens to work in industries around the globe with the promise they would keep their wages, according to a paper from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights presented on Tuesday. Instead, the wages are sent to the North Korean government, generating as much as $2.3 billion per year.

Industries employing the laborers range from logging and mining to restaurants, and workers who complain or escape risk reprisal against themselves and their families who remain in North Korea, said Robert King, special envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues at the State Department, at the House hearing.

Workers have been sent through bilateral contracts to around 40 countries, primarily Russia, China, Mongolia and nations in Africa, central Europe and the Middle East, according to a State Department Trafficking in Persons Report from March.

One defector, Lim Il, told the Lantos commission that he had been a state employee in North Korea but went to Kuwait to work at a construction company, where he was required to put in 14-hour days under strict surveillance, with two days off per month. “I think we were slave laborers,” Il said.

After escaping to the South Korean embassy, he learned that his salary had all gone to the Office of the Worker’s Party that manages foreign currency. “The money obtained through the export of laborers overseas [is] used as a personal fund for Kim Jong-un,” the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights paper said.

[MarketWatch]

Kim Jong-un’s vulnerability on display

Two recent events have shed some light on Kim Jong-un’s leadership: first he cancelled a planned trip to Moscow and now he appears to have removed the country’s formidable defense chief. (South Korea is now saying the once-powerful general, Hyon Yong-chol, has been “purged” but “not necessarily killed”.) But both occurrences point to vulnerabilities at the very top of the DPRK.

Ongoing purges suggest that some of the elite have forgotten the volatility of the young Kim, displaying a lack of respect for the institutions that sustain him and unwillingness to indulge his need to be the focal point of all adulation.

After two years of prefatory propaganda and three years of rule, it is revealing that analysts believe his authority is in question. “Internally, there does not seem to be any respect for Kim Jong-un within the core and middle levels of the North Korean leadership,” said Michael Madden, an expert at the 38 North thinktank.

If the reports are true, why should it be necessary for Kim to send such a piercing signal by removing a man who sat not just on the expanded politburo but also the all-powerful National Defense Commission? Surely the events of December 2013, when Kim Jong-un approved the purge and execution of his own uncle, should still be fresh in minds of North Korean elites.

In such a system, it is nearly impossible for figures other than Kim to accumulate public charisma or prestige. Lacking in any actual administrative expertise, Kim has traded fully upon his bloodline as his primary credential. The young leader’s celebrated “climb” to the summit of Mount Paektu this past month is a case in point: this was an occurrence which not just the whole of the armed forces but the entire nation was expected to celebrate.

There may be reasons for Hyon’s removal other than simple disrespect – he may have said or done something to embarrass the regime in Moscow, for instance, or have made inadequate preparations for Kim’s safety on the young leader’s presumptive first foreign trip.

But given what we know about how Kim operates and how he wishes to be perceived, it is more than possible that Hyon’s basic lack of interest in the personality cult is what led to his downfall.

[The Guardian]

Brutal killing Of N. Korean Military Chief reflects Kim Jong-Un’s insecurity

From an opinion piece by Donald Kirk, writing in Forbes:

The execution of North Korea’s military chief reflects Kim Jong Un’s deep insecurity about his grip over a recalcitrant elite of senior and mid-level officers and cadres.

Exactly what Hyon Yong-Chol, 66-year-old minister of the People’s Armed Forces, i.e., defense minister, did to incur Kim Jong-Un’s wrath is not clear, but the inference was that he had not only shown contempt for the young leader but also may have disagreed with him on crucial points.

North Korea has not announced the execution, but South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), drawing upon a wide range of contacts, is seen as credible when it reveals such information. The question is why Kim Jong-Un would order Hyon’s extermination considering that Hyon had just returned from an international security conference in Moscow at which he was photographed displaying rows of ribbons on his chest.

The answer, in the view of Choi Jin-Wook, president of the Korea Institute of National Unification, is that Kim is feeling increasingly insecure in an amosphere of discontent in Pyongyang among many who grew to power under his father, Kim Jong-Il. Hyon’s execution, latest in an ongoing purge of top and mid-level cadres, “is a sign of the weakness of the regime,” Choi told me. “If they are strong enough, they have no reason to kill him.”

Kim Jong-un reportedly flies into rages at any sign of disagreement, much less disobedience. He has ordered at least 15 executions in recent  months and at least 75 in the past two years. according to the NIS.

Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, quoted an unnamed official who agreed there were “growing doubts about Kim’s leadership among North Korean ranking officials.” As a result, the official was quoted as saying, “Kim has deepened a reign of terror by purging them in negligence of proper procedure.”

North Korean defense chief executed on treason charges

North Korean defense minister Hyon Yong-Chol has been executed by anti-aircraft fire for disloyalty and showing disrespect to leader Kim Jong-un, South Korea’s intelligence agency says. Hundreds of officials watched Hyon’s execution at a military academy in northern Pyongyang on April 30, Han Ki-Beom, the deputy director of the South’s National Intelligence Agency, told a parliamentary committee.

Hyon, who was appointed to the post of Minister of the People’s Armed Forces less than a year ago, was apparently caught dozing off during formal military events and also talked back to Kim on several occasions.

Han told the committee that Hyon was executed with anti-aircraft fire – a method cited in various unconfirmed reports as being reserved for senior officials whom the leadership wishes to make examples of.

If confirmed, it marks another demonstration of Kim’s ruthlessness in dealing with even the most senior officials suspected of disloyalty, following the execution of his uncle and one-time political mentor Jang Song-Thaek in 2013.

It also points to possible power struggles within the top leadership, following Kim’s decision to cancel a scheduled visit to Moscow last week in order to deal with “internal issues”.

Kim has unleashed a series of purges to tighten his grip on power in the reclusive nation after his father Kim Jong-il died in December 2011. Late last month, the South’s National Intelligence Agency reported that Kim had ordered the execution of 15 senior officials so far this year, including two vice ministers, for questioning his authority.

[Sydney Morning Herald]

North Korea claims ballistic missile launch from submarine

North Korea said Saturday that it successfully test-fired a newly developed ballistic missile from a submarine in what would be the latest display of the country’s advancing military capabilities. Hours after the announcement, South Korean officials said the North fired three anti-ship cruise missiles into the sea off its east coast.

Experts in Seoul say North Korea’s military demonstrations and hostile rhetoric are attempts at wresting concessions from the United States and South Korea, whose officials have recently talked about the possibility of holding preliminary talks with the North to test its commitment to denuclearization.

For the second straight day, North Korea said it would fire without warning at South Korean naval vessels that it claims have been violating its territorial waters off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean officials previously had said that North Korea was developing technologies for launching ballistic missiles from underwater, although past tests were believed to have been conducted on platforms built on land or at sea and not from submarines. Security experts say that North Korea acquiring the ability to launch missiles from submarines would be an alarming development because missiles fired from submerged vessels are harder to detect before launch than land-based ones.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally directed the submarine test launching and called the missile a “world-level strategic weapon” and an “eye-opening success,” said the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA. The report did not reveal the timing or location of the launch. Kim declared that North Korea now has a weapon capable of “striking and wiping out in any waters the hostile forces infringing upon the sovereignty and dignity of (North Korea).”

South Korea’s defense ministry have previously said that North Korea has about 70 submarines and appears to be mainly imitating Russian designs in its efforts to develop a system for submarine-launched missiles. The North is believed to have obtained several of the Soviet Navy’s retired Golf-class ballistic missile submarines in the mid-1990s.

Uk Yang, a Seoul-based security expert and an adviser to the South Korean military, said it is unlikely that North Korea possesses a submarine large enough to carry and fire multiple missiles. However, it’s hard to deny that Pyongyang is making progress on dangerous weapons technology, he said.

[Associated Press]

Fate of Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim remains unknown

North Korea paraded three foreign detainees before international media again this week, in what has become a common tactic for dealing with outsiders accused of crimes. While their fate remains uncertain, they are at least accounted for, unlike Hyeon Soo Lim, a Canadian pastor who disappeared in the country in January.

Conspicuous by his absence in the latest television appearances, Lim has not been heard from since entering the country on what his church says was a routine humanitarian mission. Lim had reportedly visited the country on humanitarian work more than 100 times prior to his latest trip. North Korea only confirmed his detention in March, weeks after his disappearance.

Since then, there has been no update whatsoever on his situation, according to Lisa Pak, a spokeswoman for Lim’s Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ontario, while his case has dropped off the media radar.

“We haven’t received any official confirmation about his health and current conditions of confinement,” she told The Diplomat, adding that she had hoped the CNN interviews might reveal new information. Pak said that even the reason for his detention and his location remain unknown. After almost six months of effective silence, Lim’s church and family are increasingly fearful for his welfare, according to Pak.

“For the family and the church, of course the longer it goes on the more concerned we are,” she said. “We just want him back, that’s the bottom line.

[The Diplomat]

Mideast company fires North Koreans citing labor exploitation

A construction company in Qatar has fired 90 North Korean laborers — nearly half of its entire North Korean workforce — for breaching its labor regulations.

The decision by Qatar’s Construction Development Company (CDC) came after repeated violations of local laws and regulations by the workers and inhumane treatment of the workers by their supervisors, according to the minutes of a meeting between representatives of the company and North Korean officials that was exclusively obtained by the VOA Korean Service.

“The Korean supervisors responsible for the well-being of their workers have been continuously forcing them to work more than 12 hours a day. The food provided to their workforce is below standards. Site health and safety procedures are ignored regularly,” said one representative of the company, according to the document.

The company had initially sought to dismiss all the North Korean workers, but later reduced the number of workers to be fired at the request of North Korean officials.

CDC builds luxury hotels and government facilities in Qatar, with its annual revenue amounting to $300 million.

Currently, there are about 3,000 North Korean laborers in Qatar. It is estimated that some 50,000 North Koreans are working in 16 countries around the world.

[VoA]                                                                                Read more on the subject

The cost of doing business with North Korea

There are differences between the United States and South Korea over their approach to North Korea. While no danger of a rift between the United States and South Korea exists yet, there’s a saying in Korean that perfectly sums up their situation: same bed, different dreams.

Korean President Park Geun-hye, having taken a hard line against Kim Jong Un when she assumed power two years ago, has noticeably relaxed her stance on North Korea. That perhaps reflects her domestic political realities, analysts say, pointing out that she’s entered the third year of her five-year term. With few successes to point to so far, they say, she could do with a boost from a summit with North Korea, which generally has the effect of lessening fears of the North.

Certainly, North Korea doesn’t do anything for free. To secure the first summit between the two Koreas, in 2000, Kim Dae-jung’s administration paid $500 million to the North, and the price has apparently risen exponentially over the years. In an 800-page memoir, Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, writes that North Korea demanded an “absurd” $10 billion and almost a million metric tons in food aid in 2009 during discussions about a potential summit (which never happened).

[Washington Post]

More on the three South Koreans detained in North Korea

A South Korean student, who moved to the United States with his family in 2001, now held in North Korea for an illegal entry on April 22 has told CNN in an interview from Pyongyang that he wanted to be arrested.

Joo Won-Moon, 21, who attends New York University and has permanent U.S. residency, said he had hoped to create an “event” that could improve relations between North and South Korea. It was unclear whether he was speaking freely or had been told by North Korean authorities what to say.

“I wanted to be arrested,” Joo told a CNN reporter, looking relaxed and even smiling as he walked into a conference room at Pyongyang’s Koryo Hotel for the interview. “I thought that by my entrance to the DPRK (North Korea), illegally I acknowledge, I thought that some great event could happen and hopefully that event could have a good effect on the relations between the North and (South Korea),” Joo said, without elaborating on the event.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North, said Monday it was “extremely regrettable” the North had detained Joo and called for his immediate repatriation.

CNN also interviewed on Sunday two other South Koreans being held in the North on espionage charges. Both Kim Kuk-Gi, a Christian missionary, and Choe Chun-Gil, a businessman, admitted spying for Seoul in the interviews in Pyongyang in the presence of North Korean minders. The two claimed they had not been coerced or coached on what to say. CNN noted that their accounts were “strikingly similar”.

Foreigners arrested in North Korea have previously admitted wrongdoing on camera or in writing, only to retract their statements following their return home.

[Agence France Presse]