North Korea’s labor export program qualifies as human trafficking

North Korean workers make soccer shoes as a North Korean manager stands supervising inside a temporary factory at a rural village on the edge of Dandong, China.
North Korean workers make soccer shoes as a North Korean manager stands supervising inside a temporary factory at a rural village on the edge of Dandong, China.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) has released a new report entitled “Human Rights and North Korea’s Overseas Laborers: Dilemmas and Policy Challenges,” by Yoon Yeosang and Lee Seung-ju. This report provides the most comprehensive picture to date on the scope and conditions under which North Koreans are contracted for overseas labor assignments. The report was discussed at an event last week in Washington held at the Korea Economic Institute of America.

The report draws on 20 interviews with North Koreans involved as laborers or administrators in North Korea’s labor export system. Based on these interviews, NKDB estimates that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has sent about 50,000 to 60,000 laborers overseas to earn an estimated $1.2 to 2.3 billion on behalf of the state, although Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics suggested that this estimated foreign-exchange earnings may be too high. North Korea’s overseas labor network is reported to extend to forty countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe including Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Nigeria, and Poland. However, the bulk of North Korean workers are in Russia (20,000) and China (19,000). Most North Koreans are employed in the mining, logging, and construction sectors, and candidates are selected through a state-administered process.

North Korea’s illicit networks involving trade in counterfeit goods have been a hard target in research on North Korea for decades, but the problems related to North Korean labor overseas, though perhaps equally longstanding, have drawn less attention. Through efforts such as the Bush administration’s illicit-activities initiative in the early 2000s, the United States has led efforts to target North Korean foreign currency earning efforts in trafficking drugs, counterfeiting of US dollars, cigarettes, and sales of missiles and small arms. More recently, the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea has institutionalized this effort and carried it forward to some degree as part of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1874, passed following North Korea’s 2009 nuclear tests.

Arguably, these efforts have shown some success over time in raising the costs of North Korean illicit transactions and reducing the number of customers willing to engage in illicit trade with North Korea. But one unintended consequence of this effort may be that the DPRK has become more active in exporting labor to earn foreign exchange as its returns from trade in illicit goods have come under greater pressure.

The executive summary of the NKDB report asserts that “North Korea’s policy to export laborers is part of its strategy to earn foreign currency. To achieve this goal, the government encourages the sending of workers abroad according to the dictates of the Korean Worker’s Party.” The DPRK’s willingness to exploit labor as a source of foreign currency earnings is well known.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex, which marries South Korean investment and infrastructure with North Korean provision of labor primarily for processing-on-commission work, involves transfer of worker’s wages to the DPRK rather than to individual accounts (pdf). Thus, it is not surprising that North Korea might be tempted use the same model to contract workers overseas. Perhaps more surprising is that North Koreans naively compete to be selected for these overseas jobs, presumably because they anticipate an improvement of conditions for labor that exist inside North Korea.

The most disturbing elements of the report involve descriptions of substandard living conditions for North Korean laborers in almost complete isolation from the local populations, virtual slave-labor conditions at the workplace, absence of safety standards or injury treatment or compensation, forced contributions from labor salaries for their own upkeep, and virtually no holidays or time to rest.

These conditions reveal the lengths to which the DPRK is willing to go in its export of labor to preserve isolation of workers from the outside world. The net effect of these efforts, as the preface of the report describes, is to replicate “little North Korea” abroad, in effect exporting North Korean labor standards rather than embracing international labor standards consistent with those mandated by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The US State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report also recounts DPRK government involvement with overseas labor contracts concentrated in Russia, including the Russian far east, in the labor, construction, and agriculture industries, and the NKDB report provides a much greater detail on DPRK labor export practices as well as the extent of state involvement in and/or acquiescence to trafficking in persons.

In fact, the level of detail provided in the report on DPRK state involvement in these practices arguably provides the basis for the creation of a new category of concern in the State Department’s rating system, in which the third tier has historically been used to categorize states that have failed to address trafficking in persons within their borders. But the NKDB report provides strong evidence from which to argue that the DPRK is not only preventing trafficking in persons, but is also an agent of trafficking in persons because it earns foreign exchange through the exploitation of DPRK citizens.

The NKDB report provides a set of recommendations that broadly speaking are designed to encourage North Korea, host countries, and the international community to insist that North Korean labor export practices meet minimum ILO standards. This is a constructive approach because it does not focus primarily on shaming North Korea, but rather suggests how all parties utilizating North Korean labor abroad can do better, essentially by adopting ILO labor standards.The  report provides a valuable resource by amassing concrete information on DPRK practices and spotlighting these issues so that they can be prioritized on the international agenda. DPRK exploitation of its citizens through overseas labor is a dimension of its human rights practice that was not covered in detail in the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report on DPRK human rights practices that requires greater attention from the international community.

Despite claims of its commitment to isolation, the export of labor demonstrates that North Korea does seek—and indeed needs to seek—interaction with other states economically. As such, North Korea’s current practices involving the export of its citizens abroad as laborers earning wages for the state is yet one more avenue for compelling North Korea’s adherence to international norms and practices. Host states should investigate practices involving North Korean labor conditions within their national borders, and in cases where conditions do not mean ILO standards, limit North Korean labor import in an effort to demonstrate to North Korea that it is unacceptable to its partner countries to recreate North Korean labor standards abroad.

States that do not use North Korean labor can also demonstrate the unacceptability of North Korean labor practices; for example, the State Department may need to consider a new category for states that not only ignore trafficking, but are actively engaged as agents in trafficking of their own citizens. In the long term, trafficking in persons is an area that will require additional norm strengthening, perhaps including a UN Security Council resolution analogous the the efforts of UNSC 1540 that addresses state responsibility for nuclear nonproliferation. Such a resolution would build similar reporting requirements and standards for state responses to forced labor overseas and trafficking in persons.