Around the globe, tens of thousands of North Koreans work long hours for little or no pay, toiling in Chinese factories or Russian logging camps, digging military tunnels in Myanmar, building monuments for African dictators, or sweating at construction sites in the Middle East and aboard fishing boats off Fiji, according to former workers and human rights researchers.
For decades, North Korea has been accused of sending contract workers abroad and confiscating most of their wages to support its leadership. But in the years since Kim Jong-un took over as leader, human rights researchers say, the program has expanded rapidly as international sanctions have squeezed the country’s other sources of badly needed foreign currency, like illicit trading in missile parts.
A 2012 study by the North Korea Strategy Center, a defector group in Seoul, and the private Korea Policy Research Center estimated that 60,000 to 65,000 North Koreans were working in over 40 countries worldwide, providing the state with $150 million to $230 million a year. That number has since grown to 100,000, human rights researchers said.
“North Korea is exploiting their labor and salaries to fatten the private coffers of Kim Jong-un,” said Ahn Myeong-chul, head of NK Watch, a human rights group in Seoul that is campaigning for a United Nations investigation into the practice. “We suspect that Kim is using some of the money to buy luxury goods for his elite followers and finance the recent building boom in Pyongyang that he has launched to show off his leadership.”
“Earnings are not sent back as remittances, but appropriated by the state and transferred back to the country in the form of bulk cash,” the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies said, noting that United Nations sanctions ban the transfer of bulk cash to the Pyongyang government. “Returning workers also act as mules to carry hard currency earnings back to North Korea.”
NK Watch has collected the testimony of 13 former North Korean contract workers, now living in South Korea, in support of a petition to the United Nations asking for an investigation into what it calls “state-sponsored slavery.” The petition, to be filed next month to the United Nations’ special rapporteur on contemporary slavery, said the migrants worked a minimum of 12 hours a day, were given a full day off only a few times a year, and received only a small portion, commonly 10 percent, of their promised pay, or none at all.
One worker told NK Watch that he received only $160 in the three years he worked in a Siberian logging camp in the 1990s, toiling up to 21 hours a day in temperatures often below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. He was told the rest of his wages were sent home to his family. But families were given only coupons for state-owned stores, which often had nothing to buy, former workers said.
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