Exploitation and Desperation: Human Rights Violations and Labor Conditions of North Korean Workers Dispatched Overseas

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To earn foreign revenue, the North Korean regime subjects its citizens to forced labor and egregious human rights abuse. The international community must do more to end these egregious labor practices and ensure that their human rights are upheld.

 

In recent years, the exploitation of North Korean workers overseas has emerged as a glaring concern with significant implications for international labor and human rights standards. Despite the existence of established frameworks safeguarding workers’ rights, the North Korean regime persistently engages in practices that violate such international regulations, subjecting its citizens to forced labor and egregious human rights abuses. This exploitation not only perpetuates a cycle of suffering for North Korean workers but also serves as a fundamental revenue source for the regime, funding its nuclear weapons program at the expense of the well-being of its people (Cullinane, 2013; Choe, 2023). This article aims to shed light on the breach and violations of international labor standards by the North Korean regime and calls for the international community to advocate for the protection and safeguards of the human rights of the people of North Korea.

The dispatch of North Korean workers overseas is a systemic practice that is tightly controlled by the North Korean regime, which is known for sending its citizens to work in various countries under conditions that violate international labor laws and human rights standards (Kim et al., 2019). While some workers are employed directly by foreign companies, most of them are supervised and regulated by regime entities, which take the majority of their wages, effectively turning them into “state-owned laborers” (Human Rights Watch, 2006).

Reports and testimonies from North Korean escapees indicate that workers often have limited freedom of movement, are subjected to strict surveillance, and have their passports confiscated, “trapping” them in the host countries (Ministry of Unification, 2023; Scarlatoiu, 2023). A recent investigation conducted by The New Yorker (Urbina, 2024) additionally disclosed that the majority of the female workers are subjected to sexual violence by their managers and that they are often kept within the factories against their will, facing severe punishment or even death if they try to escape. Women constitute a vulnerable group suffering intersectional oppression at the hands of the North Korean regime.

The countries that most engage with the North Korean regime and unlawfully receive North Koreans overseas are Russia and China, but some cases of North Korean workers dispatched to States in the Middle East and Africa have also been recorded in the last decade (Ham & Kim, 2019; Holmes & Philipps, 2017; The Korea Times, 2016). North Korean workers dispatched to Russia are often employed in industries such as logging, construction, and shipbuilding, and North Koreans sent to China work in industries such as garment manufacturing, construction, and agriculture.

Complicit countries that allow North Koreans to work and be exploited in their countries include Russia, China, and various countries in the Middle East and Africa. These countries often turn a blind eye to the exploitative conditions faced by North Korean workers as their employment is cheaper and presents greater economic advantage compared to establishing regulated contracts. The larger profit margin gained by private companies or States leads to the neglect of the necessity of ensuring human rights standards for the workers.

 

The working conditions faced by North Korean laborers are often characterized by exploitation, abuse, lack of labor rights, and unsafe environments. Many workers are subjected to long hours, low wages, and poor living conditions, often without access to proper healthcare or legal protections (Human Rights Watch, 2006; Scarlatoiu, 2023). These conditions violate fundamental labor rights as outlined in the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which includes the principles of freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and the elimination of forced or compulsory labor (ILO, 1998).

Additionally, the ILO defines forced or compulsory labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily” (art. 2 of the ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930). From the data collected from interviews with North Korean escapees conducted by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), it emerged that workers do not willingly volunteer for such overseas assignments but are usually forced to do so by the regime. This violates internationally recognized human rights standards and is prohibited under various international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 4, 1948) and the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention (n. 29).

Furthermore, North Korea is a party to four main international human rights treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). All provide important workers’ rights protections, and as a party to these international human rights treaties, North Korea has a legal obligation to protect these rights and ensure the safety and protection of its workers (UNHCR, 2006).

In addition to forced labor and poor working conditions, the wages earned by North Korean workers are often heavily garnished by the North Korean regime (Scarlatoiu, 2023). Reports suggest that a significant portion of their earnings, sometimes as high as 90%, is siphoned off by the regime, with only a fraction being returned to the workers (US Department of State, 2023). This exploitation of wages is a clear violation of the right to just and favorable remuneration as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 23).

The trafficking and exploitation of North Korean workers contribute to a situation where they are effectively being exploited as a source of revenue for the North Korean regime. These workers are deprived of their fundamental rights, and their labor is being exploited to sponsor an oppressive regime and support its illicit activities, including its nuclear weapons development program (Scarlatoiu, 2023). This not only violates international labor standards but also sustains a system that perpetuates human rights abuses within the country.

The dispatch of North Korean workers has also been raising concerns about the international community’s complicity in these violations. Host countries where North Korean workers are employed hold a responsibility to ensure that the workers’ rights are protected and that they are not subjected to forced labor or exploitation. Several countries have been complicit in enabling these abuses by continuing to allow the employment of North Korean workers within their borders despite the known labor rights violations associated with their employment (Scarlatoiu, 2023).

Complicit countries that allow North Koreans to work and be exploited in their countries include Russia, China, and various countries in the Middle East and Africa. These countries often turn a blind eye to the exploitative conditions faced by North Korean workers as their employment is cheaper and presents greater economic advantage compared to establishing regulated contracts. The larger profit margin gained by private companies or States leads to the neglect of the necessity of ensuring human rights standards for the workers. In turn, their employment also allows the North Korean regime to profit from their labor while disregarding their rights and well-being. Such States’ complicity is a clear violation of international human rights standards and labor conventions (Scarlatoiu, 2023).

In response to these violations, the international community has taken steps to address this issue. The United Nations (UN) has repeatedly condemned the North Korean regime’s human rights record and nuclear proliferation activities and, specifically to this concern, called for an end to the forced labor of its citizens overseas. In 2017, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2397, which called on UN Member States “to repatriate all DPRK nationals earning income and all DPRK government safety oversight attachés monitoring DPRK workers abroad” (UN 1718 Sanctions Committee, n.d.).

By violating the sanctions established by the Security Council, China and Russia breach the legislation that they agreed upon with their veto power. Furthermore, several entities have implemented sanctions to prohibit the influx of North Korean workers abroad. For instance, the United States (US) implemented the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act (NKSPEA) in 2017, which includes provisions to sanction countries that continue to illicitly employ North Korean workers (US Government, 2016).

Furthermore, the US enacted the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which built upon the NKSPEA by expanding and strengthening sanctions against North Korea (US Congress, 2017). Notably, Section 321(b) (22 U.S.C. § 9241a) of CAATSA provides for additional measures to pressure the North Korean regime towards denuclearization, as well as targeting individuals and entities involved in certain activities, such as human rights abuses and illicit financial transactions. The European Union (EU) has also taken steps to combat human rights and labor violations against North Koreans. In 2022, the EU enacted legislation aimed at prohibiting the import of goods produced by North Korean forced labor, designed to prevent the exploitation of North Korean workers overseas and to hold accountable any entity benefitting from such exploitative practices (European Parliament, 2023; Alexandrova, 2019; European Parliament Legislative Observatory, 2022).

It remains essential and urgent for the international community to continue to pressure both North Korea and the countries that employ its workers under conditions of abuse to end these exploitative labor practices, which in turn finance the expanding nuclear weapons program of the North Korean regime. The enforcement of international laws and conventions, such as the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention and Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, is crucial in holding responsible parties accountable and deterring such violations of human rights. Additionally, diplomatic efforts should be made to encourage host countries to abide by their legal obligations and ensure the protection of the rights of all workers within their borders while holding accountable those who violate legally binding international directives established (UN General Assembly, 1990).

In conclusion, the dispatch of North Korean workers overseas represents a severe violation of human rights and international labor standards. The exploitation and forced labor of these workers not only perpetuate the oppression and enslavement of North Korean citizens but also enable the North Korean regime to generate revenue for its illicit activities. The international community must take concerted action to end these egregious labor practices and ensure that the human rights of North Korean workers are upheld. By enforcing international laws and conventions, the international community can work towards ending the exploitation of North Korean laborers and promoting fundamental labor rights and human dignity for all.

 

 

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