Slave to the Blog: North Koreans Abroad



This blog has its origins in the book Witness to Transformation which was based on two large-scale refugee surveys. As a consequence, issues relating to refugees have always had a special place on this blog. But not all North Koreans abroad are refugees: the organized export of labor is another of my hobbyhorse issues topics of particular interest. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, former Attorney General of Indonesia observed earlier this month, “During this visit [to the newly opened office in Seoul of the High Commissioner for Human Rights], my attention was repeatedly drawn to the issue of the DPRK nationals who are sent abroad to work and reportedly subjected to forced labour by their Government.”

One of those places where they have been sent to work is Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Both FIFA and Qatar have received considerable negative publicity over working conditions on sites associated with the World Cup and a number of deaths of foreign construction workers on those sites. As it was explained to me by someone with direct experience building infrastructure in Qatar, the situation is complicated: multiple public and quasi-public bodies manage large scale construction projects, and the labor practices vary across these organizations. In particular my interlocutor claimed that conditions maintained on the transportation projects under the auspices of the central government are superior to those run by the body building the FIFA stadia and was surprised by the presence and practices associated with the North Korean laborers. Last month, shortly after this conversation, according to VOA reporting, Qatar’s Construction Development Company (CDC) fired more than 100 North Korean laborers. A worker must have local sponsorship to remain in the country, according to the VOA report, and some of the workers had already left the country. The alleged violation centered on working on another firm’s site at night in contravention to the agreement that CDC had with the North Korean recruitment firms. A South Korean executive interviewed for the story indicated that it was believed that the workers were forced to work on the second site and that the North Korean supervisors were suspected of confiscating these additional wages.

This kind of tale is sadly common. The next one may fall into the category of “no good deed goes unpunished.” According to reporting by RFA, Issac Byungdo Lee, an American Christian missionary who has been living in Northern Thailand for 19 years, was arrested by Thai authorities with charges of human smuggling for assisting seven North Koreans to cross from Laos into Thailand. (Because China does not permit North Koreans to apply for asylum there, refugees have to travel to a third country typically Mongolia or a country in Southeast Asia to apply for asylum or to on-migrate to South Korea, the US, or another destination to apply for refugee status.) These particular North Koreans reportedly wanted to reach the United States. As the story observes, “The arrest came a week after the U.S. State Department gave Thailand a failing grade for a second year running in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, in which it ranks countries according to their efforts to combat such crimes.” So is Lee a dastardly human trafficker? Or a kind missionary trying to help desperate people? Or just the patsy of a Thai government that was trying to send a message to Washington? You tell me.

Whatever the true story, this journey is getting more costly. According to reporting by Ju-Min Park and James Pearson at Reuters, the Kim Jong-un border crackdown has had an appreciable effect: between the barbed wire, expanded number of guard stations, and intensified monitoring of phone calls, the price of crossing the border from North Korea to China has risen to $8,000. The rising cost is one reason that the number of unauthorized departures has dropped in recent years. Improved economic conditions within North Korea may be another. But the effect may well have been to alter the composition of refugees: while many of those that Steph and I surveyed years ago left for economic motivations, the current cohort of leavers appears to be more strongly motivated by a search for freedom.

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