Overseas North Korean labor: Slowly tightening the noose on exploitative practices?



On 28 October Marzuki Darusman, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, held a 50-minute press conference in New York. The press conference, in its entirety is available here. Darusman reiterates his view that practices in North Korea amount to crimes against humanity and should be “referred to the International Criminal Court, as recommended by the Commission of Inquiry, and affirmed by the General Assembly.”

In his opening statement, he emphasized the issue of the organized export of labor, under conditions that “amount to a subjection to forced labor, both by their own and host governments,” and that firms using such labor “become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labor.” As detailed in the 2015 State Department Human Trafficking report, these conditions include working under hazardous conditions without pay for up to three years; the use of minders, enforcers, and the confiscation of passports to ensure compliance; the denial of the ability to choose or change jobs; and the use of threats of reprisals against family members remaining in North Korea if laborers attempt to escape confinement or complain to third parties. Previous posts have documented the deaths of North Koreans laboring under such exploitative conditions.

In response to a question, Darusman specifically called out China and Russia, Security Council members capable of blocking referral to the ICC, requesting that they grant him access to verify allegations of abuse.

For its part, the North Korean government rejected Darusman’s argument terming it “reckless behavior” and accusing the former Indonesian attorney general of “fostering sinister acts by using the name of the U.N.” According to Reuters, North Korea's Deputy U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Choe Myong Nam, slammed Darusman's report, characterizing it as an “extreme manifestation of politicization, selectivity and double standards and no relevance whatsoever with genuine human rights.

The substantive issue is not new: the exportation and exploitation of North Korean labor has been addressed in multiple posts in the blog going back years. What is new is the Special Rapporteur giving high-profile visibility.

The policy issue is what is to be done. The inside baseball response is a resolution sponsored by the European Union that, as last year, calls for the referral of the DPRK to the ICC. But according to reporting by Yonhap, this year’s resolution goes further, recommending that North Korea accede to the International Labor Organization and comply with all labor related covenants. Such a development would constitute a notable advance. But this approach also requires the cooperation of the Kim Jong-un regime which is unlikely to be forthcoming.

So it’s worth thinking about outside the lines responses that can be taken unilaterally. Willy Fautre, writing from a European perspective for Human Rights Without Frontiers, provides a compendium:

“The international community, including the EU and its member states, should identify the countries and companies that make use of North Korean workers and strongly urge them to ensure that:

  • the labor contracts are in line at least with the local legislation and at best with the international standards;
  • the passports and visas of the North Korean workers are not confiscated by their North Korean 'supervisor' or their employers and that their freedom of movement is not violated;
  • basic living and working standards are met, at minimum, to the level stipulated in domestic labor laws;
  • inspections of workplaces using North Korean laborers are regularly carried out;
  • North Korean workers are paid directly instead of through the North Korean government or state enterprises;
  • the North Korean supervisors do not function as a judicial police authority and are prosecuted in cases of abuse of power and exploitation

If states and companies fail to observe these conditions, human rights NGOs should publicize their names and raise this issue before the relevant international organizations:

  • Special Procedures in the UN Human Rights Council
  • UN Human Rights Committee
  • UN Universal Periodic Review
  • International Labor Organization
  • European Court of Human Rights
  • International Criminal Court

If they persist in abetting the human right abuses of North Korean laborers, international sanctions should be applied.

The purpose of this proposal is not to hinder North Korea's economic development but rather to ensure that the profits of labor are given to the rightful owners and that the rights of the North Korean workers are protected according to basic international standards of safety and dignity.”

Fautre goes on to recommend that:

“In case of non-compliance with the international standards, the UN should extend its existing list of targeted sanctions to the organizers and beneficiaries of the exploitation of North Korean overseas workers.

With the help of a group of experts, the UN should draw up a list of senior North Korean officials and entities involved in this exploitation that could potentially be subject to sanctions. Priority targets should be the heads of several political institutions in North Korea that have been found to be responsible for the exploitation of its overseas workers.

Targeted sanctions could include travel bans and asset freezes directed toward individuals committing human rights abuses and the imposition of stiff penalties, including financial sanctions, against those entities that provide support to these individuals.

The UN member states should implement such sanctions.”

Then he makes a recommendation to the EU, but one that could easily be adopted by other countries such as the US, Japan, and South Korea:

“The EU should extend its restrictive measures in respect to the exploitation of North Korean overseas workers.

The EU should check if any of its member states or EU-based private companies is involved directly or indirectly in the exploitation of North Koreans in Europe or abroad. If this is the case, the EU should act decisively in view of putting an end to this situation.

EU Delegations and Offices operating around the world as well as the diplomatic missions of EU member states should verify in the countries where they are located if North Korean workers have been or are being exploited.

As long as Pyongyang continues to exploit its overseas workers, the EU and its member states should:

  • maintain strict implementation of UN sanctions as well as its own restrictive measures and report annually on their status;
  • continue to pressure the North Korean leadership through its own institutional mechanisms (the EEAS, the EU-North Korea Political Dialogue, the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with the Korean Peninsula, etc.) to enforce the international human rights standards, respect its UN commitments, sign and ratify other relevant UN instruments.”

Again, there is no reason that such sanctions on domestic companies and actors cannot be exercised unilaterally. So for example, an American firm operating, say a construction project in Qatar, that employs North Koreans under the typically exploitative conditions that prevail, could be subject to sanction here in the US, regardless of what the governments of North Korea, Qatar, the UN, or the ICC, might or might not do.

Fautre also updates the case of more than 100 North Korean workers who were fired and repatriated from Qatar after their minders repeatedly violated Qatari labor regulations, despite having been put on notice that their behavior was illegal. Fautre says that while Genco, the North Korean labor recruitment firm in Qatar, was receiving $850 monthly per laborer for work constructing luxury hotels, the workers were receiving only $100, with the remaining $750 retained by Genco and remitted back to Pyongyang. That part, while exploitative, was not illegal. The illegality arose when, without the knowledge or consent of the Qatari sponsors, North Korean minders forced workers to moonlight at a second construction site for which they received nothing.

Ironically, the refusal of North Korea to engage on the nuclear issue has created a political vacuum that is being filled with concerns over human rights. Sadly, there is no lack of material to fill the space.

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