More than 50,000 North Koreans are being forced to work in foreign nations in conditions that amount to slavery, said the UN. The bonded laborers earn the much-needed hard currency for the country's regime. DW examines.
After working for two years under slave-like conditions in Russia, Mr. Kim (not his full name) couldn't bear it any longer. One day, he escaped from bonded-labor, daily oppression, isolation, and continuous hard work for nominal money.
But Mr. Kim's story is no isolated case.
A UN rights expert said on Wednesday, October 28, that over 50,000 North Koreans are employed in foreign countries to work on behalf of Pyongyang in conditions that amount to forced labor.
While Pyongyang takes care of the contracts, the workers are often kept in the dark about the details. Officially they are paid between 110 euros and 135 euros ($120 and $150) - a large part of which flows into the coffers of a regime which currently finds itself in a "really tight financial and economic situation," according to Marzuki Darusman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea.
The North Koreans are predominantly employed in the mining, lumber, construction and textile industries, said Darusman.
Talking to reporters in New York, rights expert noted that the majority of the workers are in China and Russia. He also said that countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East host a significant number of the laborers, adding that firms that hire North Korean workers "become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labor."
This is the system that Mr. Kim fled from 13 years ago and he has been on the run ever since. He introduced himself as Mr. Kim, as he fears that exposing his full identity could bring trouble to his family in North Korea.
Mr. Kim's working conditions in Russia were not easy. He was employed at a forestry company in Tynda, a town located in the east of the country, to sort logs for export, day in and day out.
"We had to work in temperatures which reached as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius. It was extremely hard physically and mentally," he told DW. There were no holidays for workers except for New Year's Day. "There were more than 2,000 overseas workers from North Korea at the factory. In my unit we were six."
These six were not only working together; they were also living together in a sleeping container which had neither heating nor water. Mr. Kim was not subjected to physical violence, but he felt as if he was deceived by his own government because he went to Russia with very different expectations.
"I applied for a job abroad through my employer in North Korea because I could not earn enough money at home to feed my family," he said. The possibility to earn $ 130 seemed tempting at the time he was selected to go to Russia.
But he did not get the promised money. "Almost 95 percent of my salary went directly to the North Korean government," he bitterly said. His is not the only case, as the Pyongyang regime is using overseas workers as an opportunity to bring much-needed foreign currency to North Korea.
A way out?
Mr. Kim worked an average of 16 hours per day and sometimes even twenty. By 2002, he could not bear the work anymore, so he took the first available opportunity to flee. During a regular meeting called by the North Korean supervisor at the factory, he managed to run away unnoticed. "I had saved some money over months and I bought a train ticket." He settled in another city where no one knew him and continued to work on construction projects as a laborer in Russia.
In 2013, he decided to go to South Korea, where he has lived ever since.
Mr. Kim is not worried about his personal security since he has not received any threats until now, he explains. "The North Korean leadership does not know that I fled. North Korean guards did not report my disappearance because if they had reported it, they would have also been punished."
Given these consequences, many cases of disappeared workers are swept under the rug. Mr. Kim does, however, worry constantly about his relatives in North Korea. "If one day it came out that I fled, it could have dire consequences for them."
People like Mr. Kim are important sources of information for understanding the situation in the East Asian nation, as it continues to remain largely isolated from the rest of the world.
Darusman accused companies hiring North Korean workers of "becoming complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labor"
The latest interim report of the UN investigator concludes that the human rights situation in the country hasn't improved. The report also says the regime continues to engage in summary executions, arbitrary detention, torture and widespread ill-treatment of individuals in political prison camps, among other abuses. The UN General Assembly is set to discuss the report this week as well as the state of human rights in the country.
Darusman also reiterated his call on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to refer North Korea's human rights situation to the International Criminal Court. However, experts believe this is unlikely to happen as such a move is likely to be vetoed by Pyongyang's ally Beijing, which has veto power in the UNSC.