The Koreas

Interview: Behind North Korea’s Use of ‘Slave Labor’

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The Koreas

Interview: Behind North Korea’s Use of ‘Slave Labor’

Greg Scarlatoiu on North Korea’s use of forced labor to sustain the regime.

Interview: Behind North Korea’s Use of ‘Slave Labor’

North Korean workers on the Taedong River.

Credit: Flickr/ Roman Harak

Greg Scarlatoiu is the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. He has written and spoken extensively about North Korean human rights issues as well as political, security, and economic issues on the Korean Peninsula.

He recently spoke with Michael Larkin, the Asia-Pacific Program Officer for Young Professionals in International Affairs, about the exploitation of North Korea laborers. While many are aware that North Korea is one of the worst violators of human rights in the world today, less known is North Korea’s practice of sending its citizens abroad to work and earn hard currency for a government under heavy economic sanctions. These ‘slave laborers’ can be found at workplaces from construction sites in the Middle East to logging camps in Russia and restaurants in China.

Since 1967 North Korean laborers have been officially sent abroad to work. Could you explain how these workers make money for the regime and what importance the revenue has for the government?

North Korea’s exportation of tens of thousands of workers to foreign countries is an important part of the hard currency-generating apparatus employed to sustain the Kim regime and one of its more transparent examples of human rights violations. Recent estimates indicate that there are currently 52,300-53,100 North Korean laborers working overseas, earning the Kim regime between $150 million and $230 million per year. North Korea’s other official exports stand at about $3 billion a year. So, in addition to constituting an assured source of hard currency, labor exports represent a significant 7-8 percent of North Korea’s total exports.

How does the situation faced by North Korean workers abroad constitute forced labor from a legal perspective?

According to the ILO [International Labor Organization], “forced labor refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities. Forced labor, contemporary forms of slavery, debt bondage and human trafficking are closely related terms though not identical in a legal sense.”

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), North Korea legally takes upon the responsibility to not undertake forced labor or servitude.  The international community expects North Korea to observe ICCPR Article 8, 3 (a) – that “no one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labor.”  North Korea should also observe ICCPR Article 8, 1 prohibiting “slavery” and Article 8, 2 prohibiting “servitude.” Newspaper investigations, research reports, testimony from defectors and businessmen, and additional empirical evidence indicate that North Korea violates internationally accepted labor standards in its labor export program. High-profile North Korean defector Kim Tae San testified before the European Parliament that the coercive nature of North Korea’s international labor practices amounted to “21st century slave labor.”

North Koreans have suffered through an epic famine in the 1990s, drought, and continued food shortages. With the information that is available to your organization, do North Koreans ever consider working abroad a better alternative to remaining in their country?

Yes. Overseas jobs are coveted, and North Koreans do choose to work of their own accord, while even bribing officials to obtain a position outside North Korea. Nevertheless, they are forced to accept sub-par, coercive working conditions and suffer tactics and policies that includes workers’ families being held hostage while they are abroad.

How can multinational companies be made to ensure that their supply chains do not rely on North Korean labor?

By abiding by internationally accepted standards of corporate social responsibility. That said, it should not be assumed that the North Korean supply chain is always tainted. Drastic measures should be taken only if a thorough investigation indicates that forced or slave labor is involved in the production of goods with North Korean content. Such measures should be taken only after attempts to seek redress have been made.

The Asan Policy Institute has identified Russia and China as the largest recipients of North Korean laborers. Democratic countries such as Poland and Mongolia have also hosted North Korean workers. What are some strategies for pressuring politically and economically diverse countries to stop using North Korean laborers?

Most importantly, these countries should abide by obligations assumed through domestic and international law to protect the labor rights of workers within their territorial jurisdictions, including migrant and other foreign workers.

External to the UN system, at times, NGOs may be tactically more effective. Pressuring host countries that are more accountable than North Korea under international law and more exposed to the international economic system, and thus more vulnerable, may make the odds to facilitate real change more reasonable. NGOs can also influence corporations to adhere to the Global Sullivan Principles and to only conduct business in countries that adhere to ILO standards, thus helping to regulate, oversee, and ensure that North Korean workers are not as vulnerable and exploitable.

North Koreans working at the Kaesong Industrial Complex inside North Korea for South Korean companies receive a reduced portion of their wages because the money is paid in cash to employees but it is turned over to the North Korean government for distribution. Is South Korea undermining efforts to protect North Korean workers wherever they are located?

South Korea is not intentionally undermining efforts to protect North Korean workers. That said, although Kaesong is within the territorial jurisdiction of the DPRK (North Korea), South Korean corporations are bound by the international labor standards embedded in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

The South Korean Ministry of Unification is quoted in a 2006 Human Rights Watch report stating that North Korea does take 30 percent of the workers’ wages as “contribution to a fund designed to provide free housing, healthcare, and education.” The same report also quotes a Ministry of Unification statement that South Korean companies make sure their North Korean workers sign payroll forms showing their work hours and wages, thus ensuring they are aware of how much they are supposed to be paid.

Although Article 32 of the Kaesong Industrial Complex Labor Law stipulates that South Korean companies must pay wages directly to North Korean workers, in cash, this provision is reportedly not implemented properly.

In addition to wage payment violations, other core labor standards are not specifically protected at Kaesong. For example, in Cycle 1 of the Universal Periodic Review, Spain recommended that North Korea amend the Labor Law of the Industrial Complex of Kaesong to incorporate the minimum age of 18 years for work hazardous to the health, security or morality of minors.