In the debate over N. Korea’s overseas workers, listen to the workers

As of January, two EU nations — Poland and Malta — were its principal consumers of North Korean labor. As the Leiden Asia Center has shown us, those North Korean workers labor under harsh and unsafe conditions, the North Korean government steals most of their wages, and the state’s per capita wage theft is far more profitable in Europe, where prevailing wages are higher, than it is in Africa or Asia where most North Korean laborers work. That’s why the recent decisions of Poland and — as of last week, Malta — to stop granting and renewing visas for North Korean workers will cause significant pain to the regime in Pyongyang.

Malta’s decision not to renew the visas of 20 North Korean workers follows “a push by South Korea and human rights groups that raised concerns about the conditions faced by the North Korean workers.” Two Maltese firms employed these workers — the construction firm Rite Mix, and the Chinese-run textile maker Leisure Clothing.

An official of Rite Mix said that about 15 North Koreans had worked for the company, but all of them left en masse around late May. A Leisure Clothing official also said that the company is no longer hiring North Korean workers. Malta is considered to have the closest relations with North Korea among EU members.

A source said that there have been continued media reports in Malta that North Korean workers have been suffering from long working hours and other abuses while getting only one third of their wages, with the rest sent to their government. [Yonhap]

Admittedly, 20 isn’t a very large number. Presumably, it excludes the three North Korean workers who defected from their jobs in Malta to South Korea last year. There is also more bad publicity for the Russian companies that employ North Korean labor, and that sometimes advertise their use of it openly, in the form of the Daily NK’s latest report in its series.

Before going to Russia, the provincial Party cadres informed me that when forestry production normalized, I could expect to receive an average of US $300 per month. With that in mind, I calculated that I could make $10,000 over the course of my contract (the standard three year term). When I considered the costs of food and lodging, I thought I could take home at least $5,000. I realized after six months that the reality would be totally different from this inflated expectation.

The money that was put in my hand at the end of the month was closer to $70-$80.  And that was what we received in the winter. Winter production lasted from October until May. We worked extremely hard during that time. However, 40% of our wages went to the State Forestry Administration, 20% to the affiliated state-run enterprise, and 15% went to the production unit’s  operational funding. The remaining 25% went to the laborers.

During the summer, we went to the lumber worksites to set up the facilities and equipment, including tools and vehicles. Our wages were cut in half during this period. [Daily NK]

The workers were misled about more than just their wages. After all, who would pay a bribe for the “privilege” of being crippled for life, or dying broke and far from home?

Sometimes logs fall on the laborers. The logs sometimes crushed laborer’s legs. The authorities do not provide any compensation or health services. Instead, they send injured workers home empty handed. In a single moment, these poor laborers are transformed into handicapped people and immediately get sent away.

Some workers fall from high heights resulting in concussions. Others are too immersed in their work to avoid a falling tree. People have died upon impact from such injuries. There was also an incident when dozens of workers died together. They made temporary lodging because they were deep in the forest. They got caught in a forest fire while they were sleeping.

One laborer went into town to buy some food supplies when he was confronted with a drunken local. The local was wielding a deadly weapon, and he ended up killing the laborer. That made the workers quite upset, especially because the North Korean authorities did not demand a just response from the Russian government. Even now, when I think about that, I get angry. The authorities were so obsequous (sic) and inhumane. I get the most upset when I recall how my colleagues frozen, dead bodies were loaded up on a train. [Daily NK]

Recently, I fisked an NK News article that found two North Korean construction workers in Vladivostok (they were rather obviously minders) and, based on their statements, reached the implausible conclusion that North Korea’s overseas “slaves” are actually quite happy. Similarly, in his recent interview with Radio Free Asia, Andrei Lankov argued that, while the conditions for the workers might not be ideal, they must be better than working conditions inside North Korea if the workers paid bribes to get those jobs. Leave aside whether working conditions inside North Korea are a useful comparator for anything. What’s clear is that the workers are paying those bribes because they’ve been lied to, baited with false promises of high wages they seldom see.

Of course, nothing speaks louder than the actions of the workers themselves. Growing numbers of them are rebelling against their minders or fleeing from them. As for those who remain behind, there’s ample evidence that whether they’re working in restaurants or canneries in China, construction sites in Qatar or Kuwait, or the Siberian taiga, they labor in miserable conditions for wages that are invariably a fraction of what corrupt state officials promise them. Conditions at Leisure Clothing in Malta don’t sound as bad as those in Siberia, but they do sound worse than running a stall in a jangmadang in Chongjin, where one at least has some freedom of movement, and to set one’s own working conditions. The fact that the state lies to them to steal their labor doesn’t mean they aren’t slaves. It means they are.

Malta’s decision, however, is drawing criticism from a surprising source — the Polish human rights activist Johanna Hosaniak, who has been advocating the rights of North Koreans longer than I have, and as a full-time job. Hosaniak’s view is that expelling North Korean workers is a lost opportunity to draw North Korea’s labor arrangements into compliance with EU and international norms, and to expose North Koreans to more developed and liberal societies. Marcus Noland has advocated something similar, proposing a code of ethics for foreign investors in North Korea, similar to the Sullivan Principles that investors in South Africa previously agreed on, at least before anti-Apartheid activists concluded that only complete divestment would force that system to change.

Despite my respect for Hosaniak’s views generally, I don’t find this particular argument persuasive. First, given North Korea’s resistance to transparency in financial and all other matters, there’s no reason to think that it would agree to more open and fair labor arrangements. Arguably, it might rather send the workers to China than accept more transparency. Second, it seems impossible to verify that the workers would receive most of their own pay, or that they or their families wouldn’t face punishment for organizing or demanding safe working conditions. Third, as with all engagement projects, North Korean minders go to great lengths to limit interpersonal contact with foreigners, and presumably only posts workers abroad when it calculates that it can keep them isolated. Fourth, the image that North Korean workers see of “liberal” societies abroad is of societies that are content to exploit them and that have little if any moral or material superiority over their own. It evokes the old Soviet joke about the difference between capitalism and communism: under capitalism, man exploits man; under communism, it’s exactly the opposite!

There is also the darker aspect of engagement that has been a consistent theme of its moral comprises — the fact that in our interactions with North Korea, we are uniquely prone to compromising our own ethical and legal standards, rather than expecting Pyongyang to compromise its standards. Some day, we are forever told, Pyongyang will begin to change gradually, although this never quite seems to happen. Meanwhile, we are left asking, “Who changed who?”

If Pyongyang continues to resist even marginal, incremental, and gradual change, that’s because it can afford to. It is the nature of totalitarian systems to remain totalitarian and unaccountable, to resist change, and to protect the status quo. What should be clear today from the failure of Sunshine is that Pyongyang must be denied the choice to resist change. If the system will not change at the margins, then the entire system must change, either because it is forced to accept transparency, or because it ceases to exist entirely.  That fundamental choice can only be forced if the very survival of the entire system is threatened. That happens to be the same conclusion that anti-Apartheid activists reached three decades ago.

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