Slave to the Blog: The Rising Tensions Edition


Tourism, trade, cyber-crimes, and exploitation

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



Posts in the “Slave to the Blog” category are those in which we revisit or update issues on which we have blogged previously. When we’re lucky there is a unifying theme. Looking at these stories, that theme seems to be “rising tensions.”

Steph Haggard practically makes a living writing about foreigners, often Americans, who have been detained in North Korea. (Actually, he doesn’t make a living doing this, but that’s another story.) Anyway, we concluded a post earlier this month on PUST Professor Kim Hak-song with “At some point, it would not be all that surprising if the US government moves to tighten travel restrictions legally.”

Ask and ye shall receive.

Last week legislation introduced in the House by Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California, rumored to be eyeing a presidential bid, and Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, best known for shouting “you lie!” during a 2009 address by President Obama to a joint session of Congress, would ban tourist travel by Americans to North Korea, and require OFAC to issue a license for non-tourist travel. In a joint statement, the bill’s sponsors wrote that given North Korea’s “demonstrated willingness to use American visitors as bargaining chips to extract high level meetings or concessions, it is appropriate for the United States to take steps to control travel to a nation that poses a real and present danger to American interests.”

Koryo Tours appears to have gotten the memo in advance: they’re now sponsoring tours to Mongolia.

An ongoing mystery is the extent to which China is actually imposing sanctions on North Korea. Some observers have suggested that perhaps a recent spike in gasoline prices might have indicated that China was reducing oil exports. Others attributed the price increase to panic buying driven by bellicose statements coming from Pyongyang and Washington. VOA reports that prices have remained elevated. At the same time, Leo Byrne at NK News reports that North Korean imports of gasoline and diesel were normal in April. Advantage fear-inspired hoarding?

Continuing the trade theme, Yonhap cites another VOA story to the effect that Chinese grain exports to North Korea are up sharply year-over-year both for the month of April, and for the January-April period. A vibrant economy sucking in imports? Hoarding in response to rising tensions, or more ominously, stockpiling in anticipation of a provocation? You be the judge.

There are plenty of reasons to be tense. On top of the seemingly weekly missile tests, the web security firm Symantec has added its voice to those fingering North Korea for the recent Wannacry ransomware attacks. The firm said that multiple instances of duplicate code used in previous attacks and the Wannacry attack which infected more than 300,000 computers globally meant that it was “highly likely” that a hacking group affiliated with North Korea carried out the attack, but that they did not believe that the somewhat amateurish operation was state directed. North Korean hacking groups operating out of China have been known to engage in unauthorized profit-seeking activity in the past. For its part, North Korea described the allegation as “a dirty and despicable smear campaign.”

Take that.

There are plenty of reasons to be tense. On top of the seemingly weekly missile tests, the web security firm Symantec has added its voice to those fingering North Korea for the recent Wannacry ransomware attacks.

And if, as currently under consideration, the UN Security Council decides to tighten sanctions, what might they go after? One possibility is the organized export of labor. According to the Guardian, FIFA, which had previously been criticized for abusive labor conditions at World Cup construction sites in Qatar, has now admitted that similar abuses involving North Koreans have occurred at World Cup sites in Russia.

The construction of Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg has been plagued with cost overruns and delays. According to Willy Fautre at Human Rights Without Frontiers, the vice-governor essentially offered local construction firms a deal under which they would work on the project for free in exchange for future contracts and lax inspections. Local firms which had been employing North Koreans on unrelated projects, began using them on the Zenit Arena project. According to Fautre, the project manager was then approached by a North Korean middleman offering 100 North Korean workers who would be available 24/7 for the remainder of the year. One-third of the pay would be given to the workers, two-thirds, remitted to the North Korean government.

These North Korean contract workers labor under virtually slave-like conditions, stripped of their passports and identity papers, under 24-hour surveillance, and vulnerable to retribution against family members at home if they complain. On the Zenit site, the North Koreans were reportedly housed in crowded storage containers where one suffered a fatal heart attack. The allegations were initially raised by a Norwegian soccer magazine, and to their credit, the heads of the Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic soccer federations wrote FIFA demanding an explanation. FIFA President Gianni Infantino confirmed that a FIFA investigation (hey, maybe it’s no longer an oxymoron under the current leadership) found that there had indeed been non-compliance with health, safety, and human rights standards at the construction sites and that these issues had been raised with both the Russian authorities and the general contractor. A FIFA visit in March found that the North Korean workers were no longer on the site.

The common thread is that international sports mega-events are increasingly hosted by authoritarian governments, and authoritarian governments are overwhelmingly the importers of North Korean "contract" labor. Maybe there is something to all that democratic values stuff after all. Secretary Tillerson?

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