North Korea has sent hundreds of workers to EU nations to labor as “state-sponsored slaves” as Pyongyang seeks to circumvent international sanctions aimed at starving it of money over its nuclear weapons program, rights campaigners said yesterday.
North Korean laborers commonly work 10 to 12-hour shifts, six days a week, but up to 90 percent of their pay is sent back to the state, the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) said.
Most are working in Polish shipyards, construction sites and farms. North Koreans are also employed in leisure and clothing firms in Malta and have worked in other EU nations, it said.
The North Korean embassy in Warsaw denied workers were deprived of pay.
“This is all nonsense,” said an official, declining to give his name. “Nobody is taking [their salaries], they work and make money for themselves.”
However, campaigners say North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime is using overseas labor to earn much needed foreign currency to offset the impact of UN sanctions, which were expanded in March after a nuclear test on Jan. 6 and a Feb. 7 rocket launch.
EAHRNK director Michael Glendinning said Pyongyang was “in full control and benefiting hugely.”
A UN report last year estimated that there were more than 50,000 North Koreans working abroad, earning the state US$1.2 billion to US$2.3 billion a year, although some experts question those figures.
Most are laboring in Russia and China. Others are working in African nations and on construction sites in the Middle East, including Qatar, which is preparing to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
However, EU nations are more attractive for North Korea because the wages are higher, Glendinning said.
The conditions faced by North Korean workers in Poland were to be revealed in a report due to be published yesterday by the LeidenAsiaCentre in the Netherlands.
Researchers used testimonies from North Korean laborers in and outside the EU, field research in Poland, and data from governments and other sources to compile the study.
Earlier this year, the LeidenAsiaCentre detailed the case of a North Korean welder who died from 95 percent burns in an accident at a Polish shipyard in 2014. Investigations showed the clothing supplied to him by his Polish employers was flammable.
Campaigners say the welder had been working more than 70 hours a week without proper remuneration.
North Koreans do not have proper contracts or payslips, must surrender their passports and face restrictions in their movements, Glendinning said. They are also kept under surveillance and have to participate in ideological study sessions.
“What we’re seeing is a mini-Pyongyang being exported. They are literally sending their human rights abuses to the EU and we’re tolerating it,” he added.
Poland issued 2,783 work permits for North Koreans between 2008 and last year, according to the LeidenAsiaCentre, which has linked 32 Polish companies to their employment.
Glendinning said Poland stopped issuing new visas for North Korean workers this year.
Campaigners say North Koreans are vetted closely before being sent overseas to minimize the risk of defection.
“They only select workers who are married and have children — hostage-taking essentially,” Glendinning said. “If they were to defect, the family would likely face some kind of punishment in a political prison camp, a re-education camp or — in extreme cases — execution.”
There has been one defection in Poland and possibly a few elsewhere, he said.
A documentary by Vice News shows footage of North Korean laborers in Polish shipyards and on construction sites, but workers approached by the filmmakers declined to talk.
One North Korean who escaped while working in Russia told them his family had been “destroyed” after his defection.
Campaigners do not want North Koreans deported to non-EU nations, where conditions could be worse, but say firms must ensure they enjoy the same rights and pay as other workers.
This year’s Global Slavery Index estimated that almost 46 million people are living as slaves globally. North Korea ranked worst for prevalence, with one in 20 people thought to be in some form of modern slavery.
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