Rights activists claim that Pyongyang is expanding its forced labor camps and exporting workers overseas to earn more hard currency to pay for nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.
A human rights group says its research shows that the North Korean regime is increasingly using its own citizens as slave labor in order to circumvent international sanctions and to earn foreign currency. The group has issued a call for the international community to unite in the same way it did to bring the apartheid regime in South Africa to its knees in the 1980s.
In a report issued on Monday, The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) accused Pyongyang of expanding some of its labor camps, where anyone convicted of crimes against the state can be held for an indefinite period, and using those prisoners to work in mines, to carry out logging operations and labor in factories producing wood products, to work in agricultural fields and orchards, with livestock and in light industrial facilities.
Working with AllSource Analysis, a leading provider of high-resolution imagery from satellites, HRNK has been monitoring developments at the North's prison camps for several years and the evidence suggests the present gulag population is around 120,000 inmates.
That figure is still down significantly from a historic high of 250,000 inmates, Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the organization, told DW. And although that might appear to be an improvement, he said, the decline is actually due to the "appalling" conditions in the camps, with prisoners "subjected to relentless forced labor and induced malnutrition." And numbers may be rising again, he added.
"Under the Kim Jong Un regime, we have seen an aggressive purge and an intensified crackdown on attempted defections," he said. "Given that family members and associates are also purged, the number of political prisoners is likely to have increased over the past four years. We are now in the process of reassessing that number, using satellite imagery and defector testimony."
Rights groups claim that some camps have expanded, although one facility, close to the border, has been shut down, apparently because of its proximity to China. They say that North Korea does not want Chinese tourists or businessmen stumbling across the camp, while it also does not want another escapee making it to freedom in China.
Most worrying from a human rights perspective, Scarlatoiu said, is the question of the whereabouts of the tens of thousands of prisoners from Camp No. 22, a vast complex that sprawled across nearly 2,000 square km, when it was shut down in 2013. While some may have been transferred to other camps, the suggestion is that as many as 20,000 may have died of starvation.
It is difficult to put an exact figure on the amount that slave laborers earn for the regime, although Scarlatoiu believes the funds are ploughed back into supporting Kim Jong Un's pet projects.
Funds for the military
"It would not be a stretch to say that it is very likely that some of this income is spent on military projects," he said. "Kim's North Korea is currently experiencing a cash shortage and any resources go to the military first."
The regime is similarly exporting slave laborers to a number of other countries, said Marzuki Darusman, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea. Darusman issued a report in November in which he stated that more than 50,000 North Korean workers are at present employed overseas, primarily in logging, mining and the textile and construction sectors.
Most are put to work in Russia and China, although the report names 15 countries where North Korean laborers have been forced to work, including Kuwait, Malaysia, Poland, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Their wages are paid directly to the North Korean government, which is estimated to be raking in more than €2 billion (1.8 billion euros) a year.
Human rights organizations have reported that the workers are paid around €110 a month, do not receive adequate food and are sometimes required to work 20 hours a day. The workers are also closely guarded by North Korean officials to ensure they do not try to escape.
"I find it very worrying that the Russian justice minister recently went to Pyongyang to sign an extradition treaty for criminals, but I find it hard to believe that any Russian criminals would try to escape to North Korea," said Ken Kato, a Tokyo-based human rights activist.
Kato believes the treaty is designed to facilitate the repatriation of defectors from North Korea and he has written to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation to help protect the rights of North Korean workers sent to Russia.
Logging and mining
As many as 47,000 North Koreans have been sent to Russia and are primarily employed in logging and mining. Some 90 percent of their wages were automatically paid to Pyongyang. The workers were asked to "voluntarily" donate 100 percent of their wages to the state from earlier this year to help cover the costs of the victory parade in October to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Japanese occupation, Kato said.
Kato, who also written to the Emir of Qatar and other heads of state to ask them to halt the employment of North Korean slave laborers, said the international community is in a "constant battle" with the regime in Pyongyang as it tries to find new ways to get around sanctions and earn foreign currency to help fund its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
And Scarlatoiu believes that international community needs to unite to halt North Korea's abuses of its own people.
"The international community should push for a mega-grassroots campaign, on a par with what was done to do away with South Africa's apartheid in the 1980s," he said. "Civil society groups should pursue a two-track approach, involving, firstly, accountability and possibly involving UN Security Council referral of the North Korean case to the International Criminal Court, as well as engagement through existing human rights vehicles."