North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is the most isolated and closed-off country to the rest of the international community. One of North Korea’s primary sources of foreign income is through their labor exportation. The U.S. Department of State estimates that 100,000 North Korean workers are working as the overseas labor exports of the North Korean government. It is also estimated that the North Korean export laborers generate $1.2 – $2.3 billion for the North Korean government. Here are 10 facts about North Korean labor exporting.
10 Facts about North Korean Labor Exporting
- North Korea’s isolated and closed economy is the source of its poor economy and labor export. North Korea’s economy is directly controlled and dictated by its government. The country’s estimated GDP in 2015 was $40 billion, compared to its neighbor South Korea’s $1.383 trillion. Because of the government’s heavy spending on the development of its military and nuclear arsenals, industries dedicated to civilian consumption are severely underfunded. The CIA’s 2019 profile of North Korea highlights the country’s shortage of fuel, arable land, poor soil quality and agricultural machinery. It also points out North Korea’s problem with human trafficking and forced labor.
- China and Russia are the primary importers of North Korean labor. Because of the country’s
macroeconomic conditions and geographical proximity, the North Korean government has sustained economic ties with both the Russian and the Chinese government. According to a 2018 C4ADS report, there were approximately 30,000 DPRK nationals working in Russia. Some organizations also estimated that there were approximately 94,200 DPRK workers in China as of 2015. C4ADS is a nonprofit organization that provides data-driven analysis reports on global conflict and transnational security issues.
- North Korean labor exporting is not limited to manual labor. Historically, especially in for the male laborers in Russia, North Korean laborers worked in Russia’s Siberian timber industries. The majority of the female North Korean laborers worked in different North Korean themed restaurants and hotels in Russia and China. A recent investigation done by C4ADS, there is evidence of North Korean agents selling facial recognition software and battlefield radio systems to military organizations and police forces around the world. Many of these sellers when tracked by their IP addresses, seem to be based in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Some police forces around the world, such U.K.’s police force, may unknowingly purchase advanced software products from organizations run by the North Korean agents.
- The Russian government claims that Russia’s employment of North Korean laborers is not contradicting any of the U.N. sections against DPRK. In 2017, the U.N. Resolution 2397 stated
that all North Korean workers in foreign countries must be sent back to DPRK by December of 2019. The sanction also limited the DPRK’s import of petroleum to 500,000 barrels. Some claim that the Russian government’s employment of the North Korean workers and petroleum export to the DPRK is a form of foreign aid. CNN interviewed Alexander Gabuev, chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Gabuev claimed that the Russian government’s aid to the North Korean government is a way of not “squeezing” the already desperate North Korean regime too hard.
- There is evidence of North Korean workers employed in Europe working in inhumane conditions. In March of 2019, the Worldcrunch investigation interviewed a North Korean worker who claimed that he was sent to the shipyard in Gdynia, Poland by the order of the North Korean regime. Working for a ship part manufacturing company named Crist, the North Korean worker told his story of the inhumane working conditions to which many North Korean workers are subjected. In one account, the worker told the story of Chon Kyongsu, who burned to death at the shipyard because he didn’t have a fireproof protective suit.
- Some exported North Korean workers sometimes defect from their workplaces. In April 2016, 13 North Korean restaurant workers from China defected to South Korea. A debate on whether this defection was out of their own free will or a cleverly planned trick by the restaurant manager to have the workers defect is still going on. These 13 defectors were the highlights of many news networks around the globe. Mr. Pak, a North Korean defector who was interviewed by the NK News, is among many other North Korean oversea laborers who defected from their workplace in Russia, China and the Middle East.
- Overseas labor is viewed as a privilege by many North Korean citizens. Mr. Pak was sent to Kuwait as a construction laborer by his government. Pak gives a detailed account of how he was selected as an oversea laborer. He met the North Korean regime’s criteria of becoming an oversea laborer by being a party member, married with children, having technical skills and having no previous access to classified information. However, Pak still had to bribe his examiner to have his certification approved.
- Many North Korean defectors struggle to adjust to the country of their defection. Even after defecting, the lives of the North Korean defectors don’t get easier. Post Magazine’s 2018 article gives a detailed story of two North Korean sisters living in South Korea after their defection. So Won, one of the sisters, described the cultural differences and prejudices she felt in South Korea. Small differences such as her fashion sense and having a North Korean accent to big issues such as the South Korean people’s prejudice against North Korean defectors made it hard to assimilate. Workers who defect to China risk the danger of getting arrested by the Chinese officials and get sent back to North Korea. If sent back, the consequence of which will be either execution or forced labor in a labor camp.
- There are many organizations that serve as Underground Railroad for many North Koreans. Organizations, such as Liberty In North Korea, rescue North Korean defectors by providing them with basic needs, transportations, accommodations and rescue fees for the staff and the partners of the underground railroad. According to the organization’s website, Liberty In North Korea’s rescue program managed to help 1,000 North Koreans in escaping the North Korean regime. Other underground organizations, whose volunteers are South Koreans, run safe houses and create many routes to smuggle North Korean defectors and foreign laborers out of North Korea and other countries.
- The South Korean government is taking measures to ensure the safety of the North Korean defectors. Many North Korean defectors go to China, Russia and countries in Southeast Asia before making their way to South Korea. While many neutral countries, mainly in Southeast Asia, serve as a brief respite in their journey to freedom, other countries such as China actively arrest North Korean defectors to deport them back to North Korea. This is because the Chinese government doesn’t view North Korean defectors as refugees. They are viewed as illegal economic migrants. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, along with many other NGOs throughout the world, works to not only ensure the safety of North Korean defectors but also provide financial support for their resettlement in South Korea. The Ministry of Unification also didn’t completely disclose their methods for the sake of the safety of North Korean defectors.
North Korean foreign laborers face many hardships and dangers. Not only are they economically exploited but they are also suffering under the North Korean regime’s oppression of their rights and freedom. These 10 facts about North Korean labor exporting show that North Korea’s illicit means of sustaining their economy puts many North Korean families in danger of exploitation, human trafficking and violence. While this might look bleak, there are many people and organizations that are bringing the strife of North Koreans to the attention of the global community. They remind the world of how important it is to recognize the strife of people around the globe and do a small part to aid them.
– YongJin Yi