North Korea has sent tens of thousands of workers abroad with a mission to bring in foreign currency. Human-rights organizations have called those workers modern-day slaves, while also decrying human-rights abuses North Koreans face back home. To the workers themselves, there is little debate about which plight is more favorable.
“People’s views of jobs in North Korea are totally different from [South Korea],” said Lee Soung Hee, 42, who worked at a North Korean-run restaurant in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian in the early 2000s. “Women in North Korea have a fantasy about an overseas waitress job.”
The North usually sends relatively affluent, loyal citizens who it believes can be less affected by foreign cultures. The vast majority are married men whose families must stay home, discouraging would-be defectors, analysts and activists specializing in North Korea said.
“I had seen people who had returned home after foreign service smoking good cigarettes and going out for a beer,” said Lim Il, who worked at a Kuwait City construction site in the late 1990s. “For ordinary people, things like those were ‘rice cake in a picture,'” a Korean expression equivalent to “pie in the sky.”