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]