Seminar on Human Rights of N.Korean Laborers Abroad

Image: Daily NK

The Database Center for North Korean Human
Rights hosted a seminar entitled 
The Human Rights
of North Korean Laborers Abroad
 at the Korea Press Center
on March 10th. Several university professors, researchers, and representatives
of North Korean rights groups gathered to shed light on human rights violations
that North Korean laborers abroad face. Park In Ho, president of the Daily NK; Shin
Chang Hoon, researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies; Park Jong
Hoon, chairman of Database Center for North Korean Human Rights; and Lee
Jung Hoon, Korea’s ambassador for human rights, were among the prominent
figures in the field speaking at the event.

North Korea first began dispatching
laborers abroad to Russia in 1967. To date, there are approximately 460,000
North Korean laborers working in about 40 countries scattered around the world,
including Singapore, Poland, Qatar, and Kuwait. A number of Eastern European
nations employed North Korean labor until approximately a decade ago, but the Czech Republic did not officially terminate its employment of North Korean
laborers until 2007, with Romania and Bulgaria following suit. Poland is
currently the only European Union nation still employing North Korean laborers.

Needless to say, North Korea is aware
of the risks it takes by sending these laborers abroad; since its inception,
the nation has gone out its way to keep itself completely isolated from the
rest of the world by strictly limiting or prohibiting its citizens
access to foreign goods and travel. However, beset by economic
difficulties, North Korea has increasingly sent its citizens to work abroad to
funnel much-needed foreign currency back to the state. It is
estimated that these laborers are furnishing North Korea with about 150 million
to 230 million USD annually.

The conflict between the governments dire need for foreign currency and its inexorable desire to keep
its citizens away from foreign culture has led to heinous violations of these laborers
basic rights. Working from 11 to 16
hour per day on average, the vast majority of these workers have no insurance,
and in the rare case that they do, such insurance is often expropriated by North Korean “minders,” who constantly shadow the workers and deliver intermittent 
ideological education on
the regime and the Chosun Workers

In fact, many North Korean laborers have to
pay a fee to their employers to compensate for work they were unable to complete due to illness, not to speak of breaks or vacation. After the North Korean
authorities skim off
loyalty fees from the salaries, laborers receive a paltry 10 to 20% of the
original amount. In order to make up the shortfall, many of these workers seek
side jobs–unequivocally illegal– but even this money is subject to
expropriation by the North Korean authorities.

While myriad factors contribute to North
Korean laborers
vulnerability abroad, a primary one remains the invariable confiscation, by the aforementioned “minders,” of their passports as soon as they
cross the border into their assigned country. By way of an example, one of the panel members quoted a former North Korean laborer, saying, 
I did not
even see my passport at all until we passed the customs office. It was only
when we were entering Russia that the authorities handed me my passport, and I
thought to myself,
Oh, so this is what a passport
looks like.
But as soon as we entered Russia, they
dispossessed me of my passport.
By mobilizing the
workers in groups, the North Korean authorities ensure that none of them tries
to defect–individual movements are strictly prohibited.

Other factors exacerbating the plight of
these hapless workers is that they are not permitted to possess bank accounts
in the countries to which they have been dispatched, according to Kim Seung
Chul, a representative from North Korea Reform Radio who spoke at the seminar. 
I wish these laborers could, at the very least, be given the opportunity to learn
the language of the country they work in. The inability to speak the language
often makes them easy targets for fraud.”

Some hope that these workers will incite
change in North Korea after returning from abroad, their minds filled with
notions of democracy due to all the new things to which they were exposed.
Unfortunately, the likelihood of such a scenario remains overwhelmingly low. In addition to constant surveillance by North Korean “minders,” the laborers are
strictly forbidden from watching foreign TV shows, listening to foreign radio
channels, or engaging in one-on-one interactions with foreigners–even correspondence with
their family members back in the North is strictly censored. 

Because North Korea is not a member of the International Labor Organization [ILO], there are limits to the sanctions that the
international community can impose on the country. The international community
can, however, enforce sanctions on ILO member countries that import North
Korean labor. Groups within the ILO, such as the Committee of Experts on the
Application of Conventions and Recommendations, and the Committee on the
Application of Standards, are investigating to see if its member countries that
import North Korean labor have contravened the ILO

Cho Jung Hyun, a representative from Korea
National Diplomatic Academy, distilled the seminar’s points down with a brief but undeniably poignant statement wherein he said, 
the fact that some of these North Korean laborers voluntarily agreed to work
abroad, the treatment they receive is a blatant violation of the Anti-Slavery
Convention. They may not be traditional slaves in that they are not commodities
that are directly sold and bought, but they are basically treated as slaves. We
need to put an end to this crime against humanity.”

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