Report: North Korea Foreign Workers Receive Little Pay

20 March, 2015

A new report describes abuses suffered by North Koreans who are sent to work outside the country.

A South Korean human rights organization prepared the report. The group says North Koreans working overseas are often forced to live in prison-like conditions. It says the North Korean government takes 90 percent of the wages they earn. That brings billions of dollars to the North.

The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul says its report is based on statements from 20 North Korean defectors. Most were sent to work in nine countries. The 20 have refused to return to North Korea.

Report: North Korea Foreign Workers Receive Little Pay
FILE - North Korean workers assemble jackets at a factory of a South Korean-owned company at the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Complex in Kaesong, North Korea, Dec. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Kim Hong-Ji, Pool)

One defector described the experience of working in another country as "harsher than the life in prison camps in North Korea."

Lee Sung-joo is a researcher with the center. She says workers often lack even the simplest living necessities.

She says the workers are living in shelters or containers where heating or cooling systems and water are not provided.

South Korea's foreign ministry estimates that North Korea has sent about 50,000 laborers to 40 countries. The laborers are often asked to do demanding physical labor. They may work up to 15 hours a day in factories, farms or construction sites.

The defectors said their wages were paid directly to the North Korean government. The workers would then receive only 10 percent of the amount they earned. The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights estimates this brings in more than $2 billion a year for the North Korean government.

Jung Jae-ho worked on the report. He says this money eases the effect of international sanctions imposed on North Korea. Foreign countries approved the measures to punish the North for its nuclear weapons program.

He says North Korea sends workers overseas to get money for the government. At the same time, it blocks change that the international community wants to see from the country.

North Korea has denied past accusations of abusing workers. It has said these claims are part of an effort to overthrow the government.

Life overseas could be difficult for North Korean laborers. But the defectors say the jobs were highly sought after. They also say the positions offered better wages than most could earn in North Korea, even after the government took its cut.

The rights group says North Korea employed government minders to watch the workers. The report says the laborers are not permitted to move about freely, nor permitted contact with the local population. It says the workers faced physical punishment or being forcibly returned to North Korea for violating internal rules or attempting to escape.

Cho Jung-hyun is a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. He says North Korea could be brought to court for slave labor through the International Labor Organization at the International Criminal Court.

He says although North Korea is not a member of the ILO, the issue may be raised if a country importing North Korean labors is a member.

The defectors named eight countries that use North Korean laborers. The eight are China, Russia, Singapore, Malaysia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Libya. The ninth country was identified as an unnamed country in Eastern Europe.

The United Nations is currently considering a resolution to ask the International Criminal Court to investigate North Korea for crimes against humanity. However, the resolution would likely be vetoed by North Korea's allies, China or Russia, if it is brought to a vote at the UN Security Council.

I'm Jim Tedder.

Reporter Youmi Kim prepared this story for VOA. Mario Ritter wrote it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

defector - n. one who leaves a country, political party or organization and goes to a different one

impose - v. to cause (something, such as a tax, fine, rule, or punishment) to affect someone or something by using your authority

minders - n. a person whose job it is to look after someone, to follow someone