A few weeks ago VICE released a remarkable documentary on North Korean forced labor in Poland, which provides a unique glimpse into the scantly-reported existence of North Korean laborers in Europe. (The documentary is 32 minutes long and requires toggling the subtitles on.) As Marcus Noland has highlighted in a number of recent posts (here, here, and here), labor exports from North Korea are likely to be the leading edge of human rights concerns with the country, and—hopefully—for sanctions efforts as well.
The documentary starts by bringing to light the case of a North Korean welder who died in a work-related accident at the CRIST shipyard in Gdynia, Poland in 2014. The conditions that the laborers face in Poland are similar to those that North Koreans face overseas elsewhere. Workers do not receive their earnings directly; instead, Polish firms send the vast majority of wages to another “company” that the DPRK government controls. Workers are isolated from the rest of the community, work longer hours than are allowed by local laws, and are not free to move about the country.
We might expect these conditions in countries with poorer human rights records such as China, Russia, or Qatar, which are well-known for North Korean labor exploitation. But as a member of the EU, Poland is subject to higher standards and should know better. And maybe they do. While sidestepping any culpability for permitting sub-standard working conditions for North Korean laborers in the first place, on Wednesday Poland claimed that it had halted issuing new visas to North Korean laborers after North Korea's fourth nuclear test in early March. This is a positive development but needs to be monitored carefully.
The documentary notes a case of a North Korean laborer who while in Poland defected from his labor unit and subsequently claimed and was granted asylum in Poland. However, asylum claims are a relatively rare occurrence for North Koreans since it is well known that the DPRK government will then target the families of the defectors, sending them to political prisons or worse.
Besides the CRIST shipyard, the documentary presents evidence that North Korean laborers are also working at the NAUTA shipyard in Gdynia. According to the NAUTA website the shipyard has been used for servicing NATO member warships. These revelations underscore the challenges of European integration and particularly the difficulty in siloing human rights.
In testimony to the US Congress last year Greg Scarlatoiu from the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea provides a useful outline of the international legal concerns over North Korea’s labor exports. These labor practices violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights—both of which North Korea and Poland are signatories. In addition to the complete lack of freedom to organize, the underpayment of North Korean workers is the most egregious and clearest violation of international norms. The documentary shows that the case of North Koreans in Poland is the same as in authoritarian countries where North Korea exports labor: workers receive very little remuneration for their work, with most of their earnings garnished by North Korean front companies that send the money back to the regime. The documentary shows how a labyrinth of Polish entities named Armex, Alson, and Wonye—both real and shell companies—profit off of murky arrangements with North Korean state-supported companies.
But Poland isn’t the only EU country with North Korean laborers. German MEP and Chair of the EU Parliamentary Committee on Employment and Social Affairs Thomas Handel recently criticized Malta for human rights abuses with respect to North Korean textile workers laboring in conditions that do not comply with EU labor standards. The State Department’s annual country-specific reports on human rights practices make no mention of North Korean forced labor in reports for either Poland or Malta, but we are privately urging that this change if their labor exploitation policies do not.
The Pervasive human rights abuse of North Korean laborers abroad, worsened even still by the threat of punishment of their families back in North Korea, make the very contract of their labor a violation of international norms
Besides the obvious human rights issues the documentary notes the link between companies that exploit North Korean labor and illicit crime networks, including those run by the military. In one of Kowalska’s shell companies there are direct links with Kang Hong Gu, who according to a North Korean population register was commander of a brigade in North Korea as recently as 2004 and now runs Rungrado General Trading Corporation. The DPRK government lists Rungrado’s main exports as “Sindok Spring Water, marine products, knitwear, clothes, metallic and nonmetallic minerals, natural shell buttons.” Rungrado is not listed in any of the US Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals lists, but, according to a February 2016 UN Panel of Experts report Armex—one of the firms that Kowalska manages—and Rungrado General Trading Corporation have a partnership, and the company is known for smuggling parts of Scud missiles to Egypt. Rungrado is also listed in a June 2012 Panel of Experts report as reported by Japan for violating the luxury goods ban prescribed in UNSCR 1718.
The pervasive human rights abuse of North Korean laborers abroad, worsened even still by the threat of punishment of their families back in North Korea, make the very contract of their labor a violation of international norms. The international legal issues are only made more scandalous in democratic jurisdictions such as Poland and Malta where EU regulations demand higher standards. In addition, North Korean labor exports and broader illicit activities—including funding of WMD programs and proliferation activity—are inextricably linked. It is becoming increasingly difficult to understand why any country should house North Korean labor exports at this juncture; thanks to VICE, we hope that greater public pressure will be brought to bear on these outrageous cases.