The Exported North Korean Labor Force Unveils Multiple Predicaments

Updated: Apr 12, 2019

By: Timothy Goo (Research Intern)


I am a U.S. undergraduate student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in international relations at Wheaton College. Since September 2017, I have been studying abroad in Japan at Waseda University as an exchange student and volunteer research assistant. The dynamism of East Asian politics is a center in my studies; an interest that is fueled by my Korean ethnic roots and experiences in Japan. I was highly motivated to join Saejowi Initiative for National Integration because I wanted to further deepen my knowledge and, more importantly, invigorate others to learn more about North Korea (e.g. the present condition for North Korean refugees). As a research intern at Saejowi, I have gained valuable insight into new information. Furthermore, I am exposed to the quality practice of refinement in both my research and skills. I am thankful that my time at Saejowi thus far has been a great period of personal growth for me.

The Unheralded Reality of North Korean Labor

According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index, over 2.6 million North Koreans are in modern-day slavery. It may be of no surprise to hear that there are numerous North Koreans suffering from domestic drudgery. However, the agony of North Koreans, in fact, extends beyond the individuals residing in their own country; an estimated 200,000 are overseas under some of the harshest conditions and remitting their income to North Korea. Although this reason alone can justify the need to call attention to and spread awareness about the exported North Korean labor force, I further highlight that the existence of such a community unveils some extreme predicaments that must be addressed.


Deplorable Conditions

The exported North Korean laborers are living in approximately 45 countries throughout Asia,

Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. A great number of them are undocumented and therefore limited to manual labor, such as construction, mining, logging, and textiles. As a consequence, they experience different conditions compared to the locals. They live in a destitute environment surrounded by dilapidated buildings. Every morning they wake up, they are exploited for long hours and work without proper safety equipment. As one overseas North Korean worker from Poland describes, “when there are deadlines, we work without breaks. Not like the Polish. They work eight hours and then go home. We do not. We work as long as we have to.” The inhumane conditions are further reinforced by another personal account of an overseas North Korean laborer from China: “We were treated like animals, given only corn to eat, or a poorly made soup of dried radish greens. The toilet was located inside a room that hosted a dozen people. You are not allowed to move and you have to sit still in the same position. If you move, they beat you.” These testaments exemplify the violation of basic human rights and the hardships North Korean laborers encounter overseas. Furthermore, they implicate that various employers and countries around the world consent to the exercise of discrimination, cruelty, and inhumanity.


An Intractable Problem Regarding Unfair Wages

The strenuous work and life of toil endured by exported North Korean workers are further worsened as they are unfairly rewarded for their labor. The workers are compensated by merely receiving 10-20% of their earnings. The remaining 80-90% are confiscated by the Kim regime. Although workers’ earnings vary on a case by case basis, Kim Seung-chul, a North Korean laborer working as a logger in Siberia, explained that “he worked 13-hour days, seven days a week. For a month of work, he received about $20. That was what remained after the North Korean government took its cut.” This exploitative practice in the state-sponsored system has generated up to $3 billion of revenue and been mainly allocated to fund Kim’s missile and nuclear programs. Because providing better pay comes at the expense of funding a nuclear regime, this dilemma cannot be resolved with increased wages.


Defection is Not an Option

There is no doubt that the extreme conditions and harsh labor would stir thoughts of defection for overseas North Korean laborers. In preparation for this, the North Korean government installed security or prevention measures. Aside from constant surveillance, the laborers are scrutinized prior to international deployment. The government is said to only select workers who are married and have children. Identified as a form of hostage-taking, if an overseas worker were to defect, the government would then impose cruel punishments to their family members back home. I confidently state that this type of system installed by the government proves to be extremely effective considering that these overseas laborers would never want to hurt their loved ones back home. Sacrificing one’s personal comfort for the people and things one cherishes is not a foreign concept. For example, brave soldiers fight in wars to protect their country and parents sacrifice sleep to care for their child. Witnessing this particular concept in life convinces me that overseas North Korean laborers would select personal suffering over the torment of their family.


A New and Viable Solution is Necessary

The operation to export North Korean laborers has existed since the late 1940s. As of late, it has become more noticeable due to the significant increase in laborers starting in 2012. For example, the United Nations (UN) has formally addressed this issue in recent years through Resolution 2397. Because of this operation’s affiliation and correlation with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, the UN mandated that all overseas North Korean laborers return home by December 2019. Any country continuing North Korean slave labor overseas would result in having economic sanctions imposed on them. The UN is convinced that full compliance will curb the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, there is still quite a bit of international speculation, as well as personal doubt, towards the return of all overseas North Korean laborers; considering that countries have commonly undermined these sanctions in the past. More importantly, the overall resolution concerning 2397 fails to address the human right violations going on in the exported North Korean labor force. Although the future of these laborers appears inseparable from the politics of their country, it is in our best interest to truly believe that this complex issue will one day be resolved.



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