On the Issue of the “UN Human Rights Inquiry” on the so-called “North Korean Slaves”


The past year of 2014 is best remembered for a serious attempt to put pressure on North Korea for its observance of “human rights” in the country. And although the projects of Marzuki Darusman and Sonja Biserko,1) on the whole, failed, because of, inter alia, the false testimony of one of the “key witnesses”, the former Prosecutor General of Indonesia did not surrender his hopes to frighten the international community with North Korean horrors.

His recent research has spread in the media and the foreign press is now quoting the story that “more than 50 thousand North Koreans are sent by the DPRK leadership abroad, where they are forced to work in slave-like conditions in order to generate hard currency for their country.” The special rapporteur bases his findings on information received from non-governmental organizations, and from North Korean defectors.

It turns out that the citizens of the DPRK, “were sent to work in many parts of the world and they are working in conditions of forced labour, established both by their own government and the governments of the host countries” (especially in China and Russia, as well as in Algeria, Angola, Kuwait, Poland plus more than a dozen countries). Their labour is used in construction, mining, logging, textile industry.

According to testimonies of the North Korean defectors and non-governmental organizations, the workers are badly fed, forced to work 12 to 20 hours a day, with only one or two days of rest a month. The report contains an example of a Qatari construction company, which this year has sent home about 90 North Korean workers who had to work 12 hours a day and were half-starving. Medical services available for them do not comply with generally accepted standards, and if there are any accidents at the workplace, no one will report them to the local authorities.

At the same time the workers are constantly watched over by the security forces of the DPRK, and those who do not work properly, or violate the requirements of employers, may face deportation. The workers’ average salary ranges from $120 to $150 a month, but the employers transfer the workers’ salaries to accounts controlled by companies from the DPRK. Thus, they manage to earn from $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion a year.

Pyongyang responded in their time-honoured fashion: the representative of the State Construction Control of North Korea called the allegations to be “nonsense”; the workers of the DPRK “work abroad on a voluntary basis in accordance with the contracts signed with several countries in the framework of developing economic relations and exchanges with them.”

As it is considered in the DPRK, “the slanderous information is distributed at the instruction of the United States, and other forces hostile to North Korea in order to force the participants of the currently ongoing 70th session of the UN General Assembly to push through another resolution on human rights violations in North Korea.”

What can be said about this? Firstly, we are once again faced with the problem of sources. Of course, the Korean migrant workers rarely engage in open contact with foreigners. And this closeness and unwillingness to “let anyone in” are successfully interpreted as “if we are not let in, then they have something to hide,” thus any unverified rumors get an indirect confirmation.

However, there is no particular problem in studying the living conditions of North Korean workers in China, Russia or other countries. To put it mildly, it is not everywhere and it is not always on closed camps.

Moreover, in case the workers are sent through official channels, there is no problem to contact the authorities of the host country. Since most of the “slaves” live in China or Russia, information about their living conditions is quite verifiable.

However, as noted in its own text, the report is mainly based on the testimonies of defectors and on data of anti-North Korean non-governmental organizations.

Meanwhile, in Russia, citizens of the DPRK are working on the basis of intergovernmental agreements; they are protected by the laws and requirements of the Russian Federation to comply with the safety rules and they are provided with all corresponding rights, including access to medical care.

Russian media, as well as diplomats and experts on Korea have more than once examined both: the real living conditions of North Korean workers and the groundlessness of the charges in the use of slave labour.

The author also wants to give a detailed quotation of the leader of association “Spassky bacon”, which used the North Korean labour for a long time:

“The tales of North Korea “slaves” in Primorye may only be called utter drivel. Over the ten-year history of the work of “Spassky bacon” with North Korean specialists, we got fully acquainted with the entire life of these people, their habits, hobbies and even holidays. It should be noted that these are indeed very disciplined and efficient employees who are in very good shape. As for the myths distributed in the West about the excessive politicization of the inhabitants of North Korea it is not true. They do not talk about politics, they do not have any mass “political information”, at least during the 10 years of work side by side with the North Koreans, we have not seen anything like this. And we have not seen any sick or exhausted workers. Furthermore, workers and technicians of the DPRK are free to go out of the areas where they work, they may use mobile phones and Internet and watch TV. All these stories that they work 18 hours a day, sleep for four hours, and spend two more on political information, are just idle gossip and have nothing to do with reality. It is also pure fiction that all the workers’ money from the DPRK is forcedly withdrawn.”

A similar picture is given by the articles of Valery Sukhinin, the former Russian Ambassador to the DPRK, or Alexander Vorontsov, the head of Korea and Mongolia Institute of Oriental Studies, with which the audience may get acquainted independently.

In this context the story with Qatar looks rather funny. Thus, Mr. Darusman and Co. did not even understand what a blunder they had made. After all, the said report, if one reads it carefully, is not so much about how hard the life of the North Koreans is, but about the conditions in which the foreign guest workers live in Qatar, on whose bones the prosperity of this Arab country is built.

By the way, conversations have been held on the topic for a long time. At the end of the twentieth century there were a number of alarmists’ articles in the Russian “democratic” press, in which North Korean loggers were shown as a source of crime, social and even environmental stress (they were accused of predatory exploitation of natural resources and destruction of rare species of animals and plants for food or smuggling).

However, after visit of V. V. Putin to North Korea this pathos disappeared in a split second, and now some authors (we will not reference their names) write the same stuff about the Chinese and Vietnamese, praising the quality of the North Koreans as being the most disciplined and efficient employees.

Secondly, although sometimes this division is noted, in fact, Mr. Darusman constantly mixes living and working conditions of those who were sent abroad officially, with illegal immigrants and migrant workers, who, because of their illegal status, naturally live in very different conditions.

However, from the standpoint of Mr. Darusman and Co., these terms, as well as harassment they face from employers of the host country, are still a reason to blame the North Korean regime that sent their citizens somewhere as “slaves.” Even the fact that they went somewhere secretly and by themselves does not matter.

This is particularly true for the situation in China, where the life of illegal immigrants really resembles life of people working in the gold mines. Their status is formally a reason for expulsion from the territory of China, and that forces them to agree to any living conditions.

The refugees are capitalised on not only by corrupt border guards on both sides of the border, but also criminal gangs, and it is a story of human trafficking, drug trafficking and the commercial procedure of obtaining political asylum. Once caught up in the criminal network, the majority of women refugees end up in Chinese brothels and cost $25 for a girl; and men end up doing the dirty, cheap work or work that is dangerous for their health right up becoming drug traffickers or smugglers themselves.

However, just recently the authorities of the two countries have taken great steps in addressing the problem of illegal migrants and their criminalization, however, even if it is mentioned, it would be in a negative context: the bloody regime impedes refugees.

So, to summarise: this is not less a propaganda document than the report based on the testimony of the notorious Shin Dong-hyuk. Working conditions of the North Korean migrant workers (at least, in the Russian Federation) are now quite well known, and they are significantly different from those described.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.
First appeared: http://journal-neo.org/2015/11/15/on-the-issue-of-the-north-korean-slaves/


1) Sonja Biserko (Serbian Cyrillic: Соња Бисерко; born February 14, 1948 in Belgrade, FPR Yugoslavia) is a Serbian compaigner for human rights. She is the founder and president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. She has recently (8 May 2013) been appointed as a member of the United Nations human rights investigation into North Korea, with Michael Kirby and Marzuki Darusman. On February 18, 2014 they published a report which received world wide attention.

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