The Exportation and Exploitation of North Korean Labor



To earn foreign exchange, North Korea engages in the organized export of labor, reputedly to 40 countries around the world. This phenomenon is of interest for two reasons: the money that the practice raises for the regime and the conditions under which these individuals labor. Controversies over the magnitude of these revenues and the stories of exploitative working conditions are nothing new. Public shaming reportedly pushed Qatar into sending home some of the North Koreans working on its FIFA World Cup sites, who had been laboring under virtual slave-like conditions, for example.

So it’s not that surprising to see that the ILO has condemned the conditions under which North Koreans are laboring in Mongolia. According to a UPI story by Elizabeth Shim, working off an earlier RFA broadcast, “Sophy Fisher, a senior communications officer at the ILO's Asia office, said North Koreans in Mongolia are suffering abuse of workers' rights… Mongolia is a signatory to the ILO's Forced Labor Convention No. 29, and Ulan Bator is required by the convention to put an end to forced labor conditions.” According to the report, “A Mongolian envoy to Washington has said there are around 2,000 North Korean workers in Mongolia's textile factories and agricultural sector” but that figure is expected to rise to 4,000 under a five year agreement signed between the two countries. Kent Boydston pointed out to me that the State Department has taken its shot at Mongolia in its latest human trafficking report, writing:

“Thousands of North Korean and Chinese workers employed in Mongolia as contract laborers in construction, production, agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting, factories, wholesale and retail trade, automobile maintenance, and mining are vulnerable to trafficking. North Korean laborers reportedly do not have freedom of movement or choice of employment and receive sub-minimum wages while being subjected to harsh working and living conditions. Chinese workers have reported nonpayment of wages. Corruption among Mongolian officials remains a significant problem in the country, impairing anti-trafficking efforts” (pp 249-50).

Given Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj‘s robust advocacy of human rights, one would hope that the government of Mongolia would bring the practices pursued in its country into alignment with its international obligations.

I hold out less hope for Russia, but do recommend Stephen Sackur’s recent BBC report from Vladivostok in which he managed to interview one of the North Korean laborers, as well as a Russian employer, and a local human rights activist.

Shim’s story quotes one refugee to the effect that the organized export of labor generates $1.8 billion annually for the regime, while an Australian Broadcasting Corporation story puts the figure at $2 billionAs I have pointed out previously, these estimates strain credulity. They imply that these workers, who toil mainly in construction, mining, and textiles and apparel, are earning more than $20,000 per worker, or roughly twice global income per capita and multiples of local wages in most of these countries. My guess is that the actual revenue figure is perhaps a few hundred million dollars—not the backbone of the nuclear program as is frequently alleged.

The real news is the release by my former employer the Korea Development Institute of a study done by researchers affiliated with the Korea Small Business Institute which advocates South Korea establishing industrial parks in the China border region to employ North Korean workers who would be hired by the Chinese partners to keep the South Koreans’ hands clean from their own 28 May sanctions, and to dupe the North Koreans who would otherwise object to their citizens working without political supervision in South Korean-operated plants. (Employment under supervised conditions such as Kaesong is acceptable.) Apparently the cities of Dandong and Hunchun are being targeted in this scheme. Read the full report (in Korean) here.

As I have argued elsewhere, Seoul has a real blind spot when it comes to upholding labor standards in North Korea. Advocating industrial parks on the China-DPRK border as a mechanism to circumvent the country’s own sanctions and trick the North Koreans strikes me as a pretty dubious proposition.

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