Last month, three North Korean defectors from South Korea visited Washington DC to share their experiences of living in and defecting from the impossible regime. No Chain, a defector-led North Korean human rights organization, introduced these defectors to the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, who in turn helped them provide their heartbreaking testimony to Congressional staff and a Congressman.
One defector spoke in detail about his experience of being exported to Malaysia to provide years of forced labor. Trained as an engineer, he comes from an elite class in North Korea. Despite this, he initially welcomed the idea of escaping from conditions at home by working abroad. He quickly discovered, however, that the living conditions for North Korean laborers in Malaysia were horrible too—they are forced to work dangerous jobs in mines and construction that locals refuse to take. Besides, over 90 percent of his wages were to be taken away—he was allowed to keep only $160 of his $2,000 monthly salary, and most of that went to pay the embassy fees for living abroad. He defected from Malaysia through China in the early 2000s and eventually made his way to South Korea.
While many Americans have never heard of this trade in unfree labor, the North Korean regime has made money for decades by exporting thousands of slave laborers to Malaysia, China, Russia, and other countries around the world. Starting with a bilateral trade agreement with Russia in 1967, North Korea has exported its laborers to work in dangerous trades like mining, logging, construction, and textiles in over 45 countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Today, the number of North Korean laborers abroad is certainly in the tens of thousands—estimates range from 20,000 to 100,000—and has grown rapidly since the onset of new international economic sanctions, which Kim Jong-Un responded to by doubling the size of the foreign labor program in search of alternative ways fund his nuclear weapons development.
The labor export program is organized and managed by the regime, in some cases through state-owned recruitment firms. This means that North Korean laborers are not paid directly by their foreign employers, but through the state, which pockets most of the money and gives them only about ten percent of their nominal salaries. This is a major source of income for the North Korean regime. A 2012 report by the International Network for the Human Rights of North Korean Overseas Labor found that North Korean government earns between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion annually from labor export; other estimates put earnings in the hundreds of millions.
Conditions at home are so bad that many North Koreans dream of being able to work abroad. Some pay fees of up to $600 to apply to the migrant labor program. In other cases, laborers are soldiers deployed directly by the state. If assigned to be sent abroad, however, there is no choice. Failure to report to an assigned job in another country can result in a labor camp sentence of six months to two years. According to one female North Korean defector, “Anyone who quits his job [and runs away from forced labor abroad]… is legally punished for the reason of being unemployed… Anyone who doesn’t work is assumed to be a criminal in North Korea.” The groups sent abroad are penetrated by security agents who monitor workers for political reliability and try to prevent any defections or complaints.
China is one of the major host countries for North Korean laborers—some estimates put the numbers at 40,000. There are over 1,000 North Koreans working at factories in Jilin province alone. They work 14 hour days and are allowed only one day off a month. Working conditions are predictably terrible: they lack even basic safety equipment like protective masks or gloves. Whole months of pay are frequently taken away or “delayed.” Unbelievably, the workers must survive through a “side job”—carrying the scraps of the seafood dumped by the factory back to North Korea and selling them there.
Russia also hosts about 40,000 North Korean forced laborers, and has recently agreed to hire even more. Workers sent to Russia are usually faced with 10-year labor requirements, dangerous working conditions, and close to no wages. One worker told NK Watch that he received only $160 in the three years he worked in a Siberian logging camp in the 1990s, working 21 hours a day in temperatures below negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Since the inception of renewed sanctions on North Korea, some countries have cut back on granting North Koreans visas. Qatar, where thousands of North Korean construction workers are helping prepare the infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, decided to stop issuing visas in May in response to international sanctions. The North Korean regime has apparently encouraged its laborers to stay illegally—and to sell bootleg alcohol to raise money for the communist regime.
With new missile tests on a monthly basis, security issues have eclipsed North Korea’s usage of forced labor. Few Americans know about North Korea’s forced labor exports, even as Kim Jong-un shamelessly expands them. Tens of thousands of North Koreans languish abroad, slaving away under terrible conditions for little or no pay. For communist North Korea, citizens are just another resource in the quest for nuclear weapons.