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A modern-day slave

Esther Felden/sh March 19, 2015

North Korea's government has sent thousands of bonded laborers abroad, to countries like China and Russia, where they work every day under inhumane conditions to earn their bread. One such laborer tells his story to DW.

Nordkorea Herr Kim Dissident
Image: UN Watch

He introduces himself as Mr. Kim, as he fears that exposing his full identity can bring trouble to his family in North Korea – he has been on the run for the past thirteen years. One day, he escaped from his bonded-labor since he could no longer bear the daily oppression, isolation, and continuous hard work for nominal money. Mr. Kim worked for two years as slave in Russia. He is one of thousands who were sent abroad to work on behalf of Pyongyang and are often kept as slaves.

Exact numbers are unknown as estimates vary widely. According to NK Watch - a Seoul-based rights organization - there are more than 100,000 of such workers. The United Nations, however, is more conservative in its estimates. "The overseas workers on a first take may involve as much as 20,000 North Korean workers outside of North Korea," said Marzuki Darusman, UN special rapporteur on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), after addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Most of them were sent to China and Russia and some to the Middle East. Moreover, there have been clear reports that North Korean laborers are working on the construction of the 2022 World Cup facilities in Qatar under extreme weather conditions.

Shattered dreams

Mr. Kim's working conditions were also not very easy in Russia. He was employed at a forestry company in Tynda, 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.

Way out

Mr. Kim worked 16 hours per day on average 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 he continued to work on construction projects as laborer in Russia.

In 2013, he decided to go to South Korea. Since then, he has once again been living on the Korean Peninsula, but this time, on the other side of border.

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." Due to 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 bring dire consequences for them."

Investigation by the UN

Yet he will not keep quiet. This week, along with other North Korean refugees, he told his story to the UN Human Rights council and raised serious allegations against the Kim Jong-un regime. He hopes that his story can draw international attention.

Darusman, UN special rapporteur on North Korea, knows the stories of the refugees and has now announced his intention to act on these reports. As Darusman stated in Geneva, he plans to review the accusations from the North Koran overseas workers.

A year ago, a three-member UN Commission published a comprehensive report on the blatant human rights violations in the East Asian country. The commission reached the conclusion that the North Korean regime was directly involved in crimes like large-scale systematic tortures and murders.