Commentary: North Korea farming out forced labor to the European Union

Is North Korea’s fifth nuclear test imminent following its failed April 15 rocket launch? With the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea announced for next month — the last party congress was held 36 years ago — it’s likely that Pyongyang would not hesitate to risk international condemnation and strengthened sanctions to demonstrate its nuclear developments through another test. The United States has threatened to impose additional sanctions that target foreign remittances. These foreign remittances are fueled by upward of 100,000 North Koreans working under conditions of forced labor around the world, including, to the surprise of many Europeans, the European Union.

A North Korean employee works in a factory of a South Korean company at the Joint Industrial Park in Kaesong industrial zone, a few miles inside North Korea from the heavily fortified border December 19, 2013. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January and long-range rocket launch in February, the international community responded in March with a new set of stronger United Nations Security Council sanctions, while South Korea’s legislature, after setting a world record for filibusters and 11 years of debates, finally passed a deeply contested human rights bill lambasting the North. Two days later, Pyongyang replied with threats of preemptive nuclear strikes. The European Union welcomed the new UN sanctions, noting the “scope for the European Union to adopt additional autonomous restrictive measures to complement and reinforce the new UN measures.” On March 16, U.S. President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13722 imposing additional sanctions that go beyond those of the Security Council and previous unilateral measures.

While the EU has not been shy about taking a leading role in spotlighting the bleak human rights situation inside North Korea, is the EU prepared to work to break this cycle of provocation and ineffective retaliation? Despite its firm stance on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the EU nevertheless has a special relationship with the DPRK that might position it for such a role. The EU’s long-standing policy of “critical engagement” with North Korea stands in stark contrast to the United States position. Seven EU countries maintain embassies in Pyongyang.

However, the EU’s relationship with Pyongyang retains a certain ambiguity. Building on Europe’s extensive and long-lasting ties with North Korea — a legacy of the continent’s own not-so-distant split along an ideological and political axis — some EU companies actually thrive on doing business with North Korea.

Although commercial engagement with North Korea is not inherently problematic, it is tricky for various reasons, not least of all the restrictions imposed by myriad sanctions. Moreover, there is arguably a strong link between North Korean human rights infringements and something that is happening in the EU today. Preliminary research shows that several hundred, possibly thousands, of North Korean workers are hired with legal work permits, but under often illegal circumstances, in EU member states. These states include Poland, Malta and others. The companies hiring North Koreans include those involved in shipyards, construction, manufacturing and agriculture. Details about these companies will be included in a forthcoming report later this year. Once workers are issued these permits, it is not clear what happens after they arrive in the EU.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides on the spot the underwater test-fire of strategic submarine ballistic missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on April 24, 2016. KCNA/via REUTERS.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides on the spot the underwater test-fire of strategic submarine ballistic missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on April 24, 2016. KCNA/via REUTERS.

Funds earned by North Korean laborers working in the EU under what appear to be conditions of forced labor and sent to Pyongyang enable the missile-launching posturing we are now witnessing. Effectively, this means that action to address North Korea’s dire human rights situation could be intimately connected to efforts to fight its threat to regional security. The link between security and human rights in the North Korean context has already been acknowledged by the referral of the DPRK’s human rights situation to the Security Council in 2014. That means that discussion on North Korea’s human rights situation is no longer limited to the UN institutions specializing in human rights (the Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Third Committee of the General Assembly in New York), but it has been taken up by the body charged with ensuring global peace and security.

While Pyongyang has been sending workers abroad since the 1960s, the practice has dramatically increased in scale since Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, likely because the impact of international sanctions has made foreign exchange more difficult to obtain while illicit activities — e.g. counterfeiting of U.S. dollars and the drug trade — increasingly have been curtailed. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the DPRK, North Korea earns between $1 and $2 billion per year from the labor of an estimated 50,000 North Koreans working abroad under, often distressing conditions. Research undertaken by the Leiden Asia Centre indicates, however, that there may be at least twice as many workers, laboring on construction sites or farms in the EU, in the timber industry in Russia, in factories in China, or building stadiums in the Middle East. While statistics about North Korea’s economy may be difficult to verify, if an estimated gross national product of $14 billion per year is accurate, the potential impact of this kind of labor would be enormous, even if the earnings mentioned by the UN Special Rapporteur seem too high.

As opportunities for earning real money inside North Korea remain sparse, many of the laborers covet these opportunities to such a degree that they reportedly pay substantial bribes to be sent abroad -- regardless of the working conditions they may find there. According to reports, once they are dispatched, they work and live under conditions that qualify as forced labor. They surrender their passports to supervisors upon arrival, work long hours without appropriate rest, reside in cramped facilities with restrictions on their movement, face punishment for infractions of rules, do not hold individual employment contracts, and do not directly receive their compensation. In many cases, the work is both physically strenuous and dangerous. Lethal accidents have been reported.

It behooves EU authorities to take notice of the conditions that North Koreans work under in their own territory and to ensure relevant law is enforced.

The more immediate question is how U.S. authorities might address EU companies utilizing North Korean labor. Using these workers would appear to make these companies liable to secondary sanctions, according to the latest executive order, which explicitly prohibits Pyongyang’s exports of slave labor. Any new sanctions targeting foreign remittances, as indicated by U.S. officials last week, might impact those EU companies and the EU states hosting North Korean workers.

Beyond the violation of labor and human rights of the workers, this issue has broader North Korea-policy implications. The bulk of income that North Korean laborers generate appears to go directly into the coffers of the state. It is important to ascertain what the state is actually doing with these funds. The purpose of Security Council Resolutions 1718, 1874 and 2094 was to limit Pyongyang’s ability to expand North Korea’s ballistics and nuclear weapons programs and to impede its access to luxury goods. UN Security Council Resolution 2270 encroaches further on Pyongyang’s ability to access funds and technology for these purposes. If North Korean earnings from sending labor abroad are being used to circumvent these restrictions, then some of the funding for DPRK weapons programs is being earned on EU territory, which should be of immediate concern to European authorities. The same things should concern every country where North Koreans are working.

If the EU is seriously seeking “additional autonomous restrictive measures” to enhance the new UN sanctions, the issue of forced labor within the bloc’s borders needs to be a focus. Determining whether the funds generated by these workers might be channeled to buying luxury goods or weapons systems targeted by current sanctions would be another. Such action would not only conform to the EU’s intention to work towards improving human rights around the world, it could also provide leverage to execute a more realistic and efficacious policy towards the DPRK.

In the meantime, the United States may soon be adding additional pressure on EU companies and states hosting North Korean workers in response to further nuclear and ballistics provocations by Pyongyang.

About the Author

Christine Chung is a senior advisor to the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and the former political advisor to the UN Commission for Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Remco Breuker is professor of Korean Studies at the University of Leiden; he can be followed on Twitter at @koryoinleiden.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.