What the State Department is saying about North Korea’s use of forced labor is at least as strident as anything we heard during George W. Bush’s second term. I suspect we’re seeing a combination of two things here — first, the State Department has internal politics of its own, and the bureaus that deal with labor and refugee issues tend to subscribe less to the diplomacy of connivance than the East Asia Bureau. Second, with North Korea’s recent behavior pushing an otherwise unimaginable policy shift in the Obama Administration, the East Asia Bureau is no longer able to censor what other parts of State say:
The North Korean government is directly engaged in the trafficking of slave labor, claimed Luis de Baca, the director of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, on Wednesday. He was peaking at a video press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. He said the regime is sending North Koreans overseas to work under exploitative contracts with Southeast Asian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern nations.
De Baca said European countries no longer accept North Korean workers, citing the example of the Czech Republic which has concluded no labor contract with North Korea since 2007. But he called for diplomatic efforts to persuade countries like Mongolia, Thailand and Laos, which do import labor from North Korea, to protect the workers’ rights.
The tone of Baca’s remarks isn’t that different from the statements we’ve heard from Stuart Levey and Philip Goldberg in relation to North Korea’s finances recently. Baca is really discouraging nations from entering into this kind of labor relationship with North Korea, in a manner that would support the Administration’s new strategy of squeezing the regime’s ill-gotten finances.
“There continue to be credible reports that North Koreans sent abroad are subjected to harsh conditions, with their movements and communications restricted by [North Korean] government ‘minders’ and facing threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in North Korea if they attempt to complain to outside parties,” the report says.
“Worker salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money for itself, claiming fees for various ‘voluntary’ contributions to government endeavors.” [Chosun Ilbo]
One wonders if the Obama Administration is taking a fresh look at the Tariff Act, which prohibits goods made with convict or forced labor from being landed in U.S. ports, and which defines “forced labor” as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty for its nonperformance and for which the worker does not offer himself voluntarily, including “forced or indentured child labor.”
The State Department lists North Korea as a Tier 3 country for human trafficking concern. That’s the worst classification that can be assigned, shared by only 11 other countries “whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so. For goods suspected of being made with forced labor, there is also a Labor Department black list, which does not include a direct ban on the import of suspect goods, but which may translate to the goods being impounded. Any citizen can write a letter to the Bureau of International Labor Affairs to nominate a particular product for that list. Finally, there’s also a process by which citizens can petition U.S. Customs and Border Protection to disallow the import of specific suspected slave-made goods.