The UN estimated in a report last year there are about 50,000 North Koreans abroad, earning the Kim regime $1.2billion to $2.3bn per year. The workers are paid very little, with their employers paying “significantly higher amounts” directly to the North Korean government, said special UN rapporteur Marzuki Darusman.
Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean Studies at Holland’s Leiden University who chairs a working group of experts to research North Korean forced laborers in the EU, puts the situation bluntly: “In my view, North Korea is the world’s largest illegal job agency. They send people where they’re needed to whoever wants to pay.”
Breuker is clear the North Koreans are working under duress. “It’s definitely forced labor as far as I can tell. Whether these people can be considered slaves, that’s a difficult question to answer — I would probably say they come very close to being slaves,” he said. “You can’t really speak of voluntary labor.”
Research indicates workers are mostly from Pyongyang, and must be loyal to the regime, and married — allowing the threat of consequences for family members to act as leverage to ensure good behavior. They are allowed a 40-day vacation back home after two years work, after which they work abroad for another three years. One worker VICE spoke to said he had been in Poland for five years.
A spokesperson from Poland’s immigration authority told VICE that asylum was granted to a North Korean who fled while working in Poland in 2015, but provided no further details.
Kim Seung-cheol escaped during a work assignment in Russia in 1999, though sources who spoke to VICE upon condition of anonymity claimed no more than 50 out of every 50,000 North Koreans who work abroad successfully flee. According to Kim, the secret police visit the families of disobedient workers and he told VICE that his son and mother were deported and then died shortly after he fled his employment. “My whole family was destroyed,” he said.
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