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Held hostage: North Korean overseas workers face 'appalling' conditions

North Koreans sent abroad as workers are exploited by the Kim regime, says Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. They are treated like slaves. Not just in China and Russia, but also in the EU.

Workers at a garment factory in an inter-Korean industrial complex (Photo: picture alliance/dpa/A.Wenzel)

North Korean women have been sent to work at textile factories and restaurants, but it's mostly men who work abroad

DW: There have been reports that North Koreans have been held in slave-like conditions in Malta - but also in Poland and other countries. How is it possible that North Koreans are held in

slave-like conditions

in Europe and elsewhere?

Greg Scarlatoiu: We've surely had reports that for the past few decades, North Korean workers have been officially dispatched to a total of 45 countries. Right now, there are North Korean workers in about 16 or 17 countries. The conditions are indeed appalling.

How is it possible? Number one, at many of these locations, there are the agents of the North Korean government that have full control of their workers and the work site. Secondly, these workers are dispatched to many countries where there are already problems with the rights of migrant workers. So these are not exactly countries with a stellar record when it comes to the rights of foreign workers.

You've worked extensively on this topic - and you've said that North Korea's exportation of tens of thousands of workers to foreign countries is an important way to get hard currency to sustain the Kim regime. How does this system work? How for instance are the workers selected to go abroad?

Listen to audio 07:04

Listen to the interview with Greg Scarlatoiu

It is always workers who have good songbun. Songbun is North Korea's social classification system - it's based on one's perceived loyalty to the regime. It's based on the perceived loyalty of parents and grandparents. So these are the people who have access to the selection process.

You may ask: If working conditions are so terrible, if in some instances these are pretty much equated to slave labor, why do these workers still want to go overseas? Well, because regardless of how terrible things might be, if they are left with a hundred dollars or a couple of hundred dollars at the end of the month, this is great for the families left back home. Going back to the selection process, it's actually only men of good songbun who are married with at least one child, but often two or more.

To make sure that they actually return to North Korea?

Yes, so the family is held hostage. So they have to belong to that class of certified loyalists, but at the same time, they are on the fringes of the core class. They are loyal and employed in let's say respectable positions, but [they are] still poor. And thus, they seek these opportunities to make the lives of their families a little bit better. Now of course once they reach their overseas locations… I've spoken with many of them who actually regret having made that decision, because they are really entrapped.

North Koreans working on fields (photo: picture alliance/ Yonhap)

Many workers volunteer to go abroad, but regret it when they realize what they've gotten themselves into, says Scarlatoiu

You've said that the workers need to have a family in North Korea and leave them behind to guarantee that they return. But despite all this, there have been cases of North Koreans trying to escape. Have they been successful?

Yes, some of them have escaped. I've interviewed 25 of them - I've met others, but I've interviewed 25 of them for my own report. There are actually three side supervisors: the technical supervisor, the party secretary - the Korean workers' party secretary - and the Stasi guy basically, the state security department agent.

And they are all on site, even in Poland or Malta? They would be there with them at all times?

Absolutely no doubt about that. There is a party organization, there are weekly party meetings, there are weekly self-criticism meetings... [During] overseas operations, there is not 100 percent, but 150 percent [of control]. There is a state security department presence, because these are North Koreans operating overseas, they must be under the strict scrutiny and surveillance of the state security department.

They will continue to indoctrinate these workers - it's even more important from the regime's point of view to indoctrinate workers who are overseas, exposed to the outside world. They will keep them under strict surveillance.

How is it that some of them escape? Well, it depends on the site, it depends on the location. Russian Far East logging camps, vast spaces… there is of course surveillance, but less surveillance than you would see at a highly contained, tightly controlled working camp let's say in the Middle East, somewhere in Qatar. It may be difficult to escape, or it may be extraordinary difficult, nearly impossible.

And the escape comes at the price of sealing the fate of family in North Korea.

A very high price. The ultimate price, really. The highest price possible.

Greg Scarlatoiu (photo: HRNK)

Scarlatoiu has spoken to North Korean workers who managed to escape from the sites

Is there anything good that could come out of North Korean workers going abroad if conditions were better? Experiencing a different way of life, seeing other cultures - or should these programs be scrapped altogether?

I am of the opinion that of course these sites are very tightly controlled, but at the same time these are [North] Koreans who've had a chance to take a look at the outside world. I recall what one of the loggers I spoke with told me. I ask all of them the same question: At what point did you realize that other places were dramatically different from North Korea? And the answer was: As soon as the train crossed the border into Russia. And you're talking about this vast nothingness of the Russian Far East.

When they return to North Korea, they continue to be kept under extraordinarily strict surveillance, but nevertheless, these are people who have seen the outside world - so from that viewpoint, I think exposure is important. But if the price is too high, I will not remove the complete closure of these sites off the table, either.

Greg Scarlatoiu is the Executive Director of

the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK)

based in Washington D.C.

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