The North Korean government sends as many as 100,000 workers overseas to be exploited not only in “friendly” countries such as China and Russia but in democratic countries such as Poland that are signatories to worker protection treaties, according to research compiled by a team of investigators from Leiden University in the Netherlands.
As many as 40 countries subject to the labor regulations of the International Labor Organization host North Korean workers “in situations that are not likely to be very different, if not explicitly worse, than the conditions that we found during the research for this project. Again, this report is but a first step towards creating a situation in which we understand the workings of and urgent need for DPRK overseas labor and in which DPRK workers can work in humane conditions,” the team wrote.
“Tried and tested as I thought I was after more than a quarter century of struggle in the labor movement and in politics, I have been shaken by the revelations brought forward in this report,” said Agnes Jongerius, a member of the European Parliament for the Netherlands and Vice-chair of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. “An autocracy of the worst kind using its own citizens as a kind of slaves in an effort to raise money for weaponry and luxury items for the elite. Despite the difficulty of verifying the numbers, this excellent report shows that it is a problem of unprecedented magnitude.”
North Korean workers, according to the report, titled Slaves to the System, work in “appalling conditions in the European Union itself while their meager remuneration flows directly into the coffers of Pyongyang.”
That corresponds with a report last October by the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights for North Korea, which also charged that tens of thousands of North Koreans are being sent to work abroad in conditions that amount to forced labor, to circumvent United Nations sanctions and earn up to $2.3bn (£1.5bn) in foreign currency for the country
Allegedly, according to the Dutch report, North Korean workers are exploited, trafficked, enslaved, and abused systematically and routinely by the government. They are sold abroad, forced, both in prisons and in freedom to work in the service of the state.
“It is a level of exploitation and enslavement that exceeds all other modern examples, and is reminiscent of the Congo under King Leopold in 1900, when millions there were enslaved and died in forced labor,” said Kevin Bales, a professor of contemporary slavery at the University of Nottingham and co-author of the Global Slavery Index
The report focuses on one North Korean individual who had worked in a Polish shipyard for years, six days a week for 12 hours a day until 95 percent of his body was covered with burns because he was wearing flammable overalls while welding pipes without supervision.
“This and the other stories and testimonies show clearly that not only European legislation, International Labor Organization conventions and universal human rights are structurally violated, but that these practices are above all essentially an attack on humanity itself,” Jongerius wrote. “The full story must be revealed. The report shows that many more – also other European countries – are involved in this structural exploitation. Even Dutch companies have, through maintenance contracts, been involved. Some of these companies have even received European funds, which means that the EU is indirectly funding the tyranny of Kim Jong-un.”
It is clear, the team found, that “North Korea, if our estimates were correct, had the highest prevalence of slavery of any country in the world. “
The team was able to obtain information in countries where the DPRK workers were placed from local authorities, media, locally conducted interviews and other means. Poland was the EU member state hosting the most North Korean workers but “the exploitative conditions under which DPRK workers have to work are not a Polish problem – this is an EU-wide problem. Indeed, it is a global issue.
Workers in Poland are not allowed to go anywhere in Poland except for work and home, they do not receive proper compensation beyond living expenses, they are forced to participate in ideological sessions worshipping an absolute leader in their spare time. They do not receive labor contracts and they are not allowed to possess their own passports.
The team called the situation a “special kind of forced labor at that, one that is ideologically enforced and shaped, exported across borders and instigated and executed by the state. Forced labor outside the DPRK is a reflection of what conditions are like inside the country itself.”
The team chose to mostly rely on testimony from workers who had already fled the DPRK and on the data contained in Polish labor inspection reports and the like because of the danger that interviewing workers themselves could subject them and their families to punishment in North Korea.
“DPRK overseas forced labor is a global issue,” the report said. “We have chosen to focus on one country, and within that country on a select number of cases. This was dictated by resources more than anything. Even so, we have not been able to delve into those cases to the extent that we wished we could.”
The crucial relationship between DPRK forced labor in the EU and the sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN and the EU, is something for future investigation, the report said. Nonetheless, what they did find is “disconcerting and demands our immediate attention.”