RFA: Poland to stop granting work visas to N. Korean laborers

Last month, I wrote about Vice’s must-see investigative documentary on North Korean workers in Poland and the exploitative and unsafe conditions in which they work for little or no pay. Via Yonhap, Radio Free Asia now quotes South Korean Foreign Ministry Spokesman Cho June-hyuck as saying that Poland will stop granting new work visas and renewing existing visas to workers from North Korea.

“The issue of overseas North Korean workers has increasingly caused concern within the international community from the perspective of human rights abuses and the flow of money into the North,” Cho said during a regular press briefing. “The Polish government also decided early this year to halt the issuance of new visas to North Korean workers.”

North Korea is believed to have more than 50,000 workers stationed in some 50 countries, including China and Russia, to earn money for its cash-strapped regime.

Several hundred North Koreans are currently estimated to be working in Poland. Under the new measure, they will not be allowed to renew their visas.

Cho said other countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe have also taken steps to reduce the number of North Korean laborers they receive by cracking down on illegal immigrants and not renewing work contracts.

“Our government takes note of such efforts by the international community to address the issue of overseas North Korean workers and plans to continue to seek possible steps in cooperation with the international community,” he said. [Yonhap]

That’s not a bad start, although it falls short of the better answer — revoking the existing visas, and blocking the assets of the North Korean firms involved in this trade. According to the Leiden Asia Center, whose research contributed to Vice’s documentary, those firms include the Rungrado General Trading Corporation, the Korea Cholsan General Corporation, the Korea South-South Cooperation Corporation (which seems a deliberate effort to confuse researchers), and the Korean-Polish Shipping Company (a.k.a. Chopol). For good measure, blocking the assets of the Polish wholesalers of this labor would serve as a useful example to others. The Leiden Asia Center’s report also contains other newsworthy information, including the fact that some shipyards that use this slave labor receive EU subsidies … and repair NATO warships.

The end of Poland’s use of North Korean laborers would be financially significant. The Leiden Asia Center reports that Poland issues around 500 visas to North Korean workers each year, “one of the highest numbers of work permits issued to North Koreans” in Europe. Between 2008 and 2015, that amounts to more than 2,700 work permits. That’s still a small percentage of the estimated total of 50,000 North Korean overseas laborers, but each North Korean worker in Europe earns nine times as much as a North Korean worker in Africa.

North Korean workers are active all over the world, but mainly in China, Russia, the Middle East, the African continent and the EU. General statistics from the ILO show that on average US$3,900 is earned in Africa per victim of forced labour; US$5,000 per victim in the Asia-Pacific region; US$15,000 per victim in countries in the Middle East; and US$34,800 per victim in so-called developed economies. While the actual amount will vary according to the particular situation, the overall relative distribution of profits is correct. The ILO further notes that “[total] profits are highest in Asia (US$ 51.8 billion) and Developed Economies (US$ 46.9 billion), mainly for two reasons: the high number of victims in Asia and the high profit per victim in Developed Economies.” [Leiden Asia Center]

RFA’s report attributes Poland’s decision to sanctions — implicitly U.N. sanctions — but nothing in the Security Council’s resolutions directly bans the use of North Korean laborers. There is, however, a requirement to ensure that U.N. member states prevent the transfer of funds to North Korea that could be used for its WMD programs. (For years, I argued that the Kaesong Industrial Complex’s see-no-evil payments violated this requirement, and this year, after a decade of denying it, the South Korean government finally admitted that I was right all along.)

The more direct sanction against North Korea’s labor exports, however, is a unilateral U.S. sanction, found in Executive Order 13722, signed in March of this year. That provision allows the Treasury Department to block the assets of any person found to have “engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue” for the North Korean government or its ruling party.

It’s possible that sanctions played some role in forcing Poland’s hand, or even in deterring the users of the laborers, but it’s more likely that the terrible publicity of Vice’s documentary and the Leiden Asia Center’s publications caused the Polish government to make this decision than sanctions.

Like Kaesong, the restaurant trade, tourism, and arms sales to Uganda, the termination of the labor trade by one country will not, by itself, bankrupt Pyongyang. But since this year began, we’ve seen many of North Korea’s external revenue sources come under pressure.

The loss of all of these revenue sources collectively would cause serious financial distress, the loss of elite confidence in His Porcine Majesty’s rule, and inter-factional competition over increasingly scarce resources. We’re a long way from hearing Ri Chun-hee sing “A Bicycle Built for Two,” but this is how things start.

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