China finally pays a (symbolic) price for its North Korean slave trade

This blog has long posited that a nuclear North Korea will not coexist with us and that war with it would be inevitable; that preventing another Korean War will require a focusing an assortment of financial, diplomatic, and political pressures on Pyongyang; and that to deter China’s government and industry from undermining that pressure will require us to pressure China itself. This will carry costs for both economies, and to the relationship between the two governments. Relations with China will have to get worse before they can get better. That is unfortunate, but it is a far better outcome than nuclear war, the collapse of global nonproliferation, or effective North Korean hegemony over South Korea.

Since the Mar-a-Lago summit in April, I’ve worried that President Trump’s tough talk about secondary sanctions against Kim Jong-Un’s Chinese enablers was a bluff. It’s still too early to say that it wasn’t, but the news that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has dropped China from Tier 2 to Tier 3 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act — specifically for its use of North Korean slave labor — is a welcome sign that the administration has begun (and hopefully, just begun) to escalate its pressure on Beijing.

“China was downgraded to the Tier 3 status in this year’s report in part because it has not taken serious steps to end its own complicity in trafficking, including forced laborers from North Korea that are located in China,” Tillerson said during a ceremony to release the report.

Tillerson said that forced labor is a key source of illicit revenues for the North.

“An estimated 52,000-80,000 North Korean citizens are working overseas as forced laborers primarily in Russia and China, many of them working 20 hours a day. Their pay does not come to them directly. It goes to the government of Korea, which confiscates most of that, obviously,” Tillerson said.

The North regime receives hundreds of millions of dollars per year from forced labor, he said.

“Responsible nations simply cannot allow this to go on and we continue to call on any nation that is hosting workers from North Korea in a forced-labor arrangement to send those people home. Responsible nations also must take further action,” he said. [Yonhap]

Tillerson’s decision reflects rising anger within the administration that Beijing is (sit down for this) still not fully implementing U.N. sanctions against North Korea.

So what does this action mean for China’s economy and trade, in practical terms? For now, not much. Beijing probably doesn’t care if the U.S. denies it foreign assistance or votes against World Bank loans for it. Any of the TVPA’s sanctions can be waived, and often are. But as Erik Voeten writes in the Washington Post, governments really do care about their tier rankings for reasons of national honor and reputation. I don’t think I’m speaking out of school by saying that during my time at the Foreign Affairs Committee, the competing appeals of diplomats and NGOs to raise or lower a government’s tier status in the next TVPA report consumed an inordinate amount of staff time. The Chinese government, being hypersensitive about its own reputation, will care very much about this.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the government was resolute in its resolve to fight human trafficking and the results were plain to see. “China resolutely opposes the U.S. side making thoughtless remarks in accordance with its own domestic law about other countries’ work in fighting human trafficking,” he told a daily news briefing. [Reuters]

Beijing is furious, naturally. I expect it to make some ostentatious displays of non-cooperation to punish Washington. It would be especially tragic if China decides to take its anger out on North Korean refugees. Hopefully, the State Department has already gamed out its responses to potential Chinese escalations. Our message to Beijing must be that we’re also prepared to escalate. China, which needs another decade of high growth rates to pay its coming crop of pensions, cannot afford this. Both sides would suffer in an economic war between the U.S. and China, but China’s export-dependent, labor-intensive economy and fragile banking sector would suffer more. That may give us more leverage to press China to expel its North Korean laborers or the U.N.-designated North Korean proliferation and money laundering networks that have operated openly on its soil for years.

The Chinese companies using the North Korean labor will care much less — at first — but they are facing far greater financial consequences, especially if the KIMS Act passes the Senate. (I sense a particularly strong appetite in both chambers of Congress and both parties for secondary sanctions against North Korean forced labor.) Under section 201 of that legislation, the products of those companies may face exclusion from U.S. markets, and their dollar assets may be frozen. (Needless to say, prospective Kaesong recidivists will not find this news reassuring.)

Dropping China to Tier III will have little immediate legal or economic effect. It still isn’t the “maximum pressure” President Trump promised us. It is an escalation and a warning. It is symbolic, but powerfully so. Ultimately, Beijing may care about being listed as Tier III for human trafficking for the same reason that Pyongyang cares about being listed as a state sponsor of terrorism — because to governments obsessed with their images, symbols can be powerful things. One hopes that this will cause more Chinese citizens to see that North Korea is a ball-and-chain on their country’s acceptance into the family of civilized nations and continued economic growth. One hopes that more of them will say that it’s time to take a hacksaw to the chain.

Continue Reading

Malaysia may expel North Korean miners (if it can find them)

Kim Jong-un is getting away with murder in Malaysia, thanks to the weakness and corruption of its government. Four North Korean suspects in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam fled immediately after the fatal attack. Because the world has taught Kim Jong-un that terrorism works, the Malaysian government let three other suspects leave after North Korea took several Malaysians (including diplomats) hostage.

Malaysia has since said that it will not cut diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, which (as some | excellent  | investigation | and | journalism | have revealed) uses Malaysia as a base of operations for moneylaundering on a large scale. The best one can now hope is that the exposure of these violations of U.N. sanctions and human rights abuses, hopefully backed by strong diplomacy and the threat of sanctions, will embarrass Malaysia into shutting down those commercial links.

One of those links is the use of North Korean miners in Malaysia for work so dangerous that “[n]o local or Sarawakian will dare to take up such jobs.” And of course, in the end, the workers probably don’t see more than a fraction of their own wages. The other day on Twitter, I pointed to an apparent discrepancy between an Arirang report that 140 of 176 North Korean workers in Malaysia had “gone missing,” and the Borneo Post report it apparently referenced as its source, which said that the 140 were merely overstaying their expired work permits. But if this CNN report is to be believed, Arirang might not have been so far off.

Authorities in Malaysia are looking for 117 North Koreans who have overstayed their work permits, according to the country’s Immigration Department.

Datuk Seri Mustafar Ali, director-general of Malaysia’s Immigration Department, told CNN on Tuesday that authorities are seeking the North Korean workers. [….]

That standoff ended, but it revealed that a significant number of North Koreans lived and worked in Malaysia.

All of the 117 North Koreans wanted by immigration are in the state of Sarawak, Ali said. It is the only state that employs North Korean workers, the country’s human resource minister said, according to state-run Bernama news agency.

Ali said the workers have been given one week to turn themselves in, and he said his department knows of their whereabouts.

“We will definitely go after them as their work permits have expired, and thus they are considered illegal workers,” he said. “But first we would like to give them or their employers a week’s notice to voluntarily turn them in.” [CNN]

While investigating the discrepancy between the Arirang and Borneo Post stories, I ran across another Borneo Post story in which two reporters traveling in Sarawak missed their turn and almost (but not quite) accidentally ran into one of the coal mines where the North Koreans work.

A few hundred metres into the road, we met a couple of strange looking foreigners, who happened to be North Koreans. We asked one of them, a woman maybe in her late 30s, for the location of the coal mine which is still operating. But she asked us our purpose of coming and we told her that we just wanted to have a look at the coal mine as it would be an interesting subject to write.

As journalists, we have the basic instinct of a good subject matter. And there and then, We knew we had got a good one. Then we drove to a cemented square in front of two rows of barracks. As we stopped our vehicle – the MU-X – a few strangers came charging at us. We had no clue what they were saying, but obviously they were speaking in Korean. As we tried to explain to them our purpose, more of them showed up. One of them rudely pointed to their site office.

At the office, we met a security guard and a general clerk – a pleasant Iban lady who spoke both Mandarin and English fluently. We told her of our purpose and she was very informative. It was from her that we knew that there are 49 North Koreans and a few Nepalis working at the coal mine.

While we were interviewing the Iban lady, the North Korean woman came charging and asked us to leave immediately as we did not have an authorisation letter. So we called Snowdan again and asked him to talk to the Korean woman. But she insisted that we should leave immediately and threatened to call in the police if we failed to listen to her command.

Feeling uneasy and sensing something unpleasant might happen, we decided that we should just leave.

After we had left the site, many questions popped in our minds such as ‘How is it that the locals do not know there are at least 49 North Koreans working and living in their midst?’ and ‘Why has the coal mine been operating so secretively and discreetly?’ We hope the authorities could shed some light on this. [Borneo Post]

And here is where those workers live:

One possibility is that the workers’ minders have told them to lay low for a while until the heat is off, and the appropriate officials can be “convinced” to extend their visas. The more intriguing possibility is that some of those workers have no intention of going back to North Korea at all. They couldn’t survive for long on their own, but if journalists can find North Korean miners, so can the South Korean NIS.

Continue Reading

Video of N. Korea’s child slaves shows us (again) the value of Pyongyang’s signature

The video was clear and stark. Its authenticity was beyond serious question. It would have shocked us if North Korea had not already dulled our capacity for outrage. Indeed, there are times when I think it has dulled even mine. Then, last December, came the videos of North Korean children set to work in coal mines, and carrying sacks of heavy stones to build railroads.

[Original reports here and here.]

The Daily Mirror called it a “chain gang,” but the only chains were psychological, and the truth was bad enough: this government conscripts little children to do hard and dangerous work that only adults should do, and even then, only with heavy construction machinery.

Then, in January, a reporter photographed civilians, including children, clearing snow from a road so that foreign tourists and members of North Korea’s political elite could ski at Masikryeong, the resort Kim Jong-un built — it should not be forgotten — while the World Food Program pled for foreign governments to donate enough money to feed North Korea’s poor. This is the life of North Korean children that the Associated Press never showed you, or even tried to.

Most recently, the Daily NK described how the regime conscripts little girls to polish gemstones it exports for hard currency.

Trading companies affiliated with the Daesung General Bureau are reportedly seeking teenage girls with soft hands for employment as manual polishers at gemstone-processing plants. The report is one of the more unusual examples of the North Korean regime’s desperate bid to earn foreign currency.

“Young female students with smooth palms are being selected to work in gemstone-processing factories in cities across South Pyongan Province, South Hamgyong Province, and North Pyongan Province. These kids are being selected because it is believed that the best polish can be achieved by rubbing the jewels in the palms of their hands,” a source from South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on February 3.

“For this reason, teenage girls can be seen sitting in groups at the gemstone factories, diligently rubbing the jewels. The tiny jewels are so small that they are hard to pick up. The students sometimes grimace as they place the jewels between their two palms and rub away.” [….]

“After rubbing the gemstones with their hands all day, the young workers develop blisters and their skin begins to peel off. They are forbidden from complaining about the pain. Instead, they keep their heads down and work hard for eight hours every day,” the source said.

He added, “Those who complain about blisters receive no sympathy. They get kicked out of the factory and lose their jobs. So they have no choice but to endure. Instead of caring for the workers, the cadres at the helm of the operations are completely focused on fulfilling the quotas set by the Ministry of Foreign Trade.”

“Most of the laborers work so hard that they get calluses. When this becomes an issue, they’re told to leave the factory,” he said.

The meager wages earned by the workers reportedly amounts to 5,000 KPW per month, an amount that is insufficient to purchase a kilogram of rice. [Daily NK]

North Korea’s forced child labor has now drawn condemnation from Human Rights Watch, which is teaming up with other NGOs to bring evidence of those abuses before the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Jeon Hyo-Vin, 16, experienced forced labor in school almost daily, until she had to leave secondary school because of her family’s inability to pay the required cash payments. Kim Eun-Sol, 18, endured forced labor in school while she was a teenager. By age 13, she became an unpaid worker in a private home in order to survive since her grandmother could not support her. Her mother, who had left to earn a living in China, could not maintain contact with her daughter. [HRW]

See also this op-ed. Even as it enslaves more children at home, Pyongyang is enslaving more adults abroad to alleviate a “chronic shortage of funds,” even at the risk that more of them will defect. In its desperation to monetize the slavery of its people, including little children, Pyongyang will make itself all the more toxic to investors who could transform its economy — if that was what Pyongyang really wanted. Instead, it pursues a business model that relies on a smaller number of the gullible and unethical partners to meet the cost enforcing the enslavement and isolation of most of its people.

~   ~   ~

Does Kim Jong-un care what some U.N. committee says? Almost certainly not, but his propagandists care very much. Their obsession with the regime’s image abroad has caused them to lash out at criticisms of the regime, even to the point of forcing North Korean diplomats to make arguments so implausible that they’re more demoralized than their audiences are persuaded.

But sometimes, the regime’s strategy of implausible deniability does work, at least up to a point. For example, a recent report by the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights credited Pyongyang for signing a convention on the rights of the disabled, while noting that it has refused to allow a U.N. Special Rapporteur or any U.N. representatives into the country to assess or verify its compliance with human rights standards.

So when Tomás Ojea Quintana, the new U.N. Special Rapporteur who replaced Marzuki Darusman in monitoring North Korean human rights issues, proposes to use Pyongyang’s accession to the Disability Convention as a keyhole to achieving broader improvements in human rights in North Korea, I can only shake my head in dismay.

“This initiative is a very useful step forward in the promotion and protection of all human rights in the DPRK and the implementation of recommendations from the latest Universal Periodic Review*,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK.

“Ratification of the Convention will help the country address prejudice against people with physical, mental, sensory or other impairments. It should also serve to address other forms of discrimination to which certain groups may be subjected based on any other attribute,” he added.

Mr. OJEA QUINTANA stressed that it was now important for the government in Pyongyang to implement the treaty in full consultation with people with disabilities, and to allow technical experts to visit the country. “The ratification should also be used as an opportunity for the country to move forward in the implementation of the other human rights treaties it has ratified, and for it to engage more with human rights mechanisms,” he added. [U.N. Human Rights Council]

Mr. Ojea really ought to review the U.N.’s list of human rights conventions North Korea has already signed — almost as many as the number of arms control agreements it has signed and broken. Among those treaties is the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1990, and an optional protocol, in 2014.

By now, anyone remotely familiar with North Korea must know that its signature on a piece of paper is meaningless. It is all well and good to offer Pyongyang some incentives for meaningful cooperation, but any engagement strategy for North Korea must begin with the understanding that a signature alone is not meaningful. It must end with a threat of accountability and consequences, something to which the regime has proven surprisingly sensitive.

Thus far, Mr. Ojea hasn’t shown much understanding of those principles. At best, he’s in for a long breaking-in period while the North Korean people will go on suffering without his support. At worst, his office, which had become one of the few U.N. bodies that told the truth, will soon revert to the irrelevance and parody that have been more typical of U.N. bodies. We should all hope that he adopts a more realistic strategy soon.

Continue Reading

Yun Byung-se, The Indispensable Man

Park Geun-hye, the cautious triangulatrix who belatedly became South Korea’s most subversive (to North Korea) president for two decades, is all but gone, and almost everyone in South Korea is applauding. None, however, have applauded with as much enthusiasm as those on South Korea’s far left, who fill a spectrum between anti-anti-North Korean and violently pro-North KoreanThe left now senses that it has an advantage headed into next year’s presidential campaign and hopes to end Seoul’s campaign of diplomatic and financial isolation of its renegade provinces in the North, and its encouragement of embarrassing and damaging defections by senior regime officials like Thae Yong-ho. But if the left hoped that the end of Park’s presidency would also mean the end of that campaign, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se is dashing those hopes. These examples, which I’ve collected over the last three months, show Yun carrying right on where Park left off.

  • 9/27: In Seoul, Park asks the President of the Netherlands “to play an ‘active role’ in pressuring North Korea to end its nuclear ambitions and provocations through sanctions and diplomacy.”
  • 9/29: North Korea opens a new embassy in Belarus, but without an accredited ambassador.
  • 9/30: South Korea’s Vice Unification Minister visits Germany, in part “to discuss strategies for global coordination against North Korea’s nuclear program.”
  • 10/4: Yonhap reports that Seoul has asked the Bulgarian government to curtail North Korea’s abuse of the Vienna Convention, “generating hard currency through illicit real-estate dealings.” (UNSCR 2321 has since emphasized that diplomatic missions may not be used for commercial purposes.)
  • 10/6: Yun suggests that U.N. member states should downgrade or cut diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. (The State Department has also called on states to “downgrade or sever” diplomatic relations with the North.)
  • 10/12: Costa Rica’s President visits President Park in Seoul and promises to issue a decree implementing UNSCR 2270.
  • 11/1: Under international pressure, Indonesia cancels a visit by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong
  • 11/2: Sudan’s Foreign Minister visits Seoul, meets with Yun, and says it has cut all military ties with North Korea.
  • 12/1: Yun says South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. will announce their own national sanctions, foreshadowing the latest round of Treasury Department designations.
  • 12/3: Immediately after the approval of UNSCR 2321 by the Security Council, Yun urges China to implement the new resolution faithfully. He also urged the incoming Trump administration  to “take over and implement the strong sanctions.”
  • 12/6: Yun says he’s scheduled to hold high-level talks with his counterparts from the U.S., China, and Russia on implementation of the sanctions, and adds, “The unprecedentedly powerful UNSC resolution, combined with individual sanctions by Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, will corner North Korea into a situation that it cannot circumvent.”
  • 12/16: Visiting Yun in Seoul, Hungary’s Foreign Minister promises to support sanctions against North Korea.

South Korea is not only vowing to continue its campaign, it is now starting to claim that it’s putting the North under severe financial and diplomatic strain. You can find the most detailed case for that claim here. It’s worth reading in full, but take it with a grain of salt.

On the optimistic side of the ledger, there is an alleged internal North Korean document exhorting diplomats to strengthen ties to “non-aligned” states, traditionally some of its best trading partners and arms clients. This interview (in Korean) with Thae Yong-ho adds recent direct evidence that sanctions have caused financial problems for the North Korean embassy in the U.K. Thae’s description of life as a North Korean diplomat adds further evidence to my observation that North Koreans overseas who can’t kick up enough tribute to their bosses — perhaps because of sanctions — worry about being punished or purged. That may make them attractive targets for recruitment to provide even more financial information, or to defect.

One could also read Pyongyang’s campaign to improve its foreign trade structure as an effort to get around trade sanctions it didn’t need to evade before. Its raising of taxes on its people may be an effort to make up for lost foreign revenue, although that connection isn’t entirely clear, nor would it be a departure from past practice. Either way, Pyongyang pays a morale penalty for those levies.

Not everything has gone South Korea’s way, however. North Korea’s arms clients in Africa, some of which have long-standing commercial and ideological ties to Pyongyang, have been stubborn targets. For example, despite Uganda’s claim that it would end its military training contracts with North Korea — UNSCR 2270 requires member states to do so immediately — it turns out that Uganda is merely choosing not to renew those contracts.

This blog has also followed Namibia’s illogical and self-serving justifications for its arrangements with North Korea.Despite claims by the Namibian government that it would end its cooperation with sanctioned North Korean entities, that relationship apparently continues. The Treasury Department’s recent designation of its principal North Korean partner, Mansudae Overseas Project Group, a front for KOMID, may make that cooperation more difficult for Namibia and the many other African countries where Mansudae operates. It will send a message to Windhoek that it must enforce the U.N. resolutions, confiscate the factory, and send the KOMID and Mansudae representatives home. For example, the South African insurance company Old Mutual insured some of Mansudae’s work in Namibia. It may hesitate to continue providing that service now. We’ll need to do more of this to give Yun the support he needs.

Then there is the case of Angola, which after a meeting with South Korea’s Second Vice Foreign Minister, said that it supports South Korea’s position on the sanctions, but hasn’t exactly enforced them to the letter since then. The fact that Seoul is dangling an agreement “to boost ties in trade, investment and development” may help. More on Yun’s extensive travels to make UNSCR 2270 stick, here and here, via Marcus Noland.

Reports that Poland and Oman had stopped employing North Korean slave labor may also have been premature. Even Thailand has allowed a new North Korean restaurant to open.

While I understand the importance of showing South Korean audiences that sanctions can work, the stories I linked in this post, and my posts here, here, and here, show a more mixed picture than Seoul’s optimistic assessments. The reality is more a case of two steps forward, one step back, with South Korea making significant gains, but not fast enough, and without enough fire support from the U.S. State and Treasury Departments to put steel on the harder targets.

The question that increasingly preoccupies me is whether it’s already too late. And given the rising talk of preemptive strikes — if only to buy time — will South Koreans be willing to accept the risks those strikes would entail? Stated differently, did Barack Obama and the chaos that rules the streets of Seoul squander our last chance to disarm North Korea peacefully?

Continue Reading

Treasury fires a broadside at Kim Jong-un’s slave labor racket

This blog has promoted the outstanding investigative work and legal analysis of the Leiden Asia Center in exposing North Korea’s rental of forced labor to European shipyards and construction companies, under unsafe and exploitative conditions. That work, ably led by Remco Breuker, yielded this Vice documentary and reports filled with actionable information. 

Recently, Breuker wrote a long, sad, and funny opinion piece lamenting that LAC’s research has incurred much harassment from Pyongyang’s wacky bands of online sympathizers while having little apparent effect on the EU’s enforcement of its worker protection laws. That’s why I was so pleased to be the one to tell Mr. Breuker that, thanks in part to LAC’s work, the U.S. Treasury Department just froze the assets of several North Korean slave merchants LAC first identified.

OFAC designated the Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies, Korea General Corporation for External Construction, Namgang Construction, and Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.  The Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies has been reported to conduct business in countries including Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Benin, Cambodia, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Namibia, Senegal, Syria, Togo, and Zimbabwe.  Korea General Corporation for External Construction has worked to supply North Korean laborers in the Middle East for the purpose of earning hard currency for the North Korean regime.  Namgang Construction has worked to supply North Korean laborers in the Middle East and Asia for the same purposes.  The Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation also works to supply North Korean laborers in Asia and Africa to earn foreign currency for the North Korean regime.  Some of the revenue generated by overseas laborers is used by the Munitions Industry Department, which was designated by the Department of State in August 2010 pursuant to E.O. 13382 for its support to North Korea’s WMD program. [U.S. Treasury Dep’t Press Release]

Leiden Asia Center’s work also had a greater impact on EU states’ policy than he acknowledges, even if that impact may be an indirect one. Poland and Malta have come under media and diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and South Korea over their acceptance of North Korean workers. Both have since stopped issuing visas to more of them. Per capita, Pyongyang’s slave laborers in the EU brought it its highest profits. There’s little question that the Leiden Asia Center’s work was the impetus for much of this change.

There are some notable exceptions. Mansudae Overseas Project Group was exposed by the 2016 report of the U.N. Panel of Experts for helping to build an arms factory in Namibia (a topic that merits its own post). Treasury’s list also omits one of the North Korean entities exposed by LAC and Vice, the DPRK Chamber of Commerce, which lists two Pyongyang addresses: “c/o Ministry of Foreign Trade, Central District, micom@co.chesin.com,” and “Jungsong-dong, Central District, P.O.Box 89.”

Once again, Treasury’s authority for the designations was Executive Order 13722, And once again, the executive order implements section 104(a) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. 

Sec. 2. (a) All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in: any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:

[….]

   (iv) to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea; [EO 13722]

If diplomatic pressure was already starting to constrict Pyongyang’s slave trade before these new sanctions, it’s reasonable to expect that the freezing of the slave merchants’ assets and a new U.N. resolution expressing “concern” about the trade will give those efforts new impetus. Pyongyang still has some stubborn customers in Qatar, Kuwait, and Malaysia who might be persuaded to terminate those relationships.

Will Pyongyang simply shift those workers to China and Russia? Those markets may also be reaching the point of saturation. Employers of North Korean laborers in Russia have recently been embarrassed by a series of on-the-job deaths and injuries, defections, reports of torture and mutilation by local minders, video of a mass brawl with Russian workers, and at least one suicide by self-immolation. Even in China, Reuters recently suggested that the number of expatriate North Korean workers is declining. That, too, may be a function of defections, which have caused Pyongyang great embarrassment and forced it to plow some of its profits back into the deployment of more minders, and minders for the minders. The death spiral swirls.

Continue Reading

North Koreans don’t want to be slaves overseas after all

The last refuge of those who defended North Korea’s use of overseas slave labor is that at least it was better than slave labor inside North Korea. It was always a con, of course — the North Korean regime promised its workers big money if they went overseas to toil in Siberian forests, Polish shipyards, Qatari construction sites, or Chinese garment factories. That the officials earned steep bribes with this con gave them a motive to lie and exaggerate. The reality was back-breaking, unsafe work for long hours and little pay (after the minders and Kim Jong-un took their cuts). Some of the workers slipped away and defected, despite the risk to their families back in North Korea. Recently, some have begun to flee in groups, or mutiny en masse. And back in Pyongyang, hardly anyone wants to work abroad anymore.

“Until just a few years ago, most workers sent overseas were from Pyongyang, but those numbers have been on a downward trend recently,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China recently told Daily NK. “People have learned that if you go abroad to work you’ll toil like a slave. This is why the number of applicants is dropping.”

However, residents from provincial areas are stepping in to fill in the gap. “The standard of living in other provinces is just so much worse compared to Pyongyang. Notwithstanding the appalling conditions awaiting them, they choose to go work abroad anyway,” he explained. [Daily NK]

How bad could things possibly be in North Korea’s provinces to make conditions like these seem relatively good? Defenders of the regime bristle at the description of North Korea as one vast, open-air prison. No doubt, many North Koreans have managed to find better lives than this. 

[A]s marketization gains a stronger foothold, more people are finding more ways to make money within North Korea’s borders, provided they have access to goods to hawk at the marketplace. This has greatly improved the standard of living for a large chunk of the population, which–taken together with abounding rumors of abject conditions and strict surveillance at worksites abroad for diminishing returns–challenges previously held beliefs about jobs abroad as a gateway to a better life.

But if the regime can still find people in Hamheung who prefer to risk death in Siberia for low-to-nonexistent wages at home, either the workers in the provinces are still being conned, or they’re laboring at the verge of starvation.

Languishing in positions at moribund factories with patchy, meager remuneration, overseas work offers many the promise of a steady stream of foreign currency and, by extension, a new life upon their return to North Korea. These overseas jobs are so coveted, in fact, provision of hefty bribes is a prerequisite requirement for applicants.

Finally, residents of Pyongyang have realized that overseas work makes their families targets for state surveillance.

Moreover, following the group defection of twelve North Korean restaurants workers and their manager from a restaurant in China, these shifting perceptions are more palpable, said a source in Pyongyang.

“Since Kim Jong Un’s accession to power, there has been great emphasis placed on fearpolitik and guilt by association. In that political climate, who would want to send their children overseas?” she pointed out.

Parents once saw working overseas as an opportunity to advance their children’s careers. Now, however, “more worry they’d become nothing more than helpless targets for exacting surveillance.”

Pyongyang residents probably have more information about actual working conditions abroad than people in the provinces. As North Koreans return to Pyongyang, they tell their wives why they brought so little pay home. The wives tell their friends, who tell their own husbands. The word gets around in a small city with a relatively higher concentration of ex-expats faster than it does in the provinces.

This shift also applies to perceptions about laborers dispatched to Russia, where a local source familiar with North Korean affairs told Daily NK that Pyongyang workers now account for only about 40% of the North Korean workforce, markedly down from the majority stake they held before.

“There are all kinds of people–everyone from those struggling to make ends meet to others who were having marital conflicts back home,” this source continued. “They say they knew they would have to work like slaves, but that they didn’t know how bad it would be.”

Until recently, the regime’s overseas labor operations’ main constraint was diplomatic and humanitarian pressure that has forced several countries to end or curtail their use of North Korean labor. Now, rising domestic opposition is also putting pressure on the labor racket. Given that this opposition comes from residents of Pyongyang, a constituency Kim Jong-un can’t afford to alienate, the regime will have to turn elsewhere for laborers. But this presents other dangers to the state. To a resident of Hamheung or Hwanghae, the gap between his own standard of living at home and that of his new host country will be far more dramatic, and his ties of loyalty to the state may also be weaker.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

U.S. joins diplomatic squeeze on North Korean labor exports

Last week, the Leiden Asia Centre made headlines around the world with the release of its exhaustive, 115-page report, “Slaves to the System,” on North Korea’s overseas labor arrangements and how those laborers are treated. The Leiden report coincides with new diplomatic efforts by the U.S., South Korea, and now, the International Labor Organization to bring those arrangements to an end.

The Chosun Ilbo reports that the U.S. government “is preparing a series of reports on the abuse of North Koreans who toil for the regime overseas or have fled abroad, as well as abuses within the isolated country,” to be submitted to Congress by mid-August. Those reports, in turn, are required under section 302 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which requires as follows:

SEC. 302. STRATEGY TO PROMOTE NORTH KOREAN HUMAN RIGHTS.

(a) In General.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State, in coordination with other appropriate Federal departments and agencies, shall submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives a report that details a United States strategy to promote initiatives to enhance international awareness of and to address the human rights situation in North Korea.

(b) Information.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—

   (1) a list of countries that forcibly repatriate refugees from North Korea; and

   (2) a list of countries where North Korean laborers work, including countries the governments of which have formal arrangements with the Government of North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of that Government to employ North Korean workers.

(c) Strategy.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—

   (1) a plan to enhance bilateral and multilateral outreach, including sustained engagement with the governments of partners and allies with overseas posts to routinely demarche or brief those governments on North Korea human rights issues, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea;

   (2) public affairs and public diplomacy campaigns, including options to work with news organizations and media outlets to publish opinion pieces and secure public speaking opportunities for United States Government officials on issues related to the human rights situation in North Korea, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea; and

   (3) opportunities to coordinate and collaborate with appropriate nongovernmental organizations and private sector entities to raise awareness and provide assistance to North Korean defectors throughout the world.

The Obama Administration is starting with bilateral diplomatic appeals to “ramp down” existing labor arrangements rather than terminate them abruptly. Adding to the administration’s powers of gentle persuasion is the veiled threat of sanctions.

“The (executive order) includes the authority to target North Korea’s exportation of labor in order to provide Treasury the flexibility to impose sanctions and ratchet up pressure as needed. At this time, we are closely studying the issue,” said Gabrielle Price, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. [Reuters]

U.S. sectoral sanctions in the new Executive Order 13722, promulgated to implement the NKSPEA, block the property of any person found to “to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.” Those sanctions can reach funds that pass through the U.S. financial system.

Although the reports are required by an Act of Congress, and although the State Department had never devoted much attention to this issue until the NKSPEA deadlines approached, the administration insists that it has always intended to make human rights issues a higher priority. For what it’s worth, I believe this really is true of some administration officials, but that the administration’s broader policy was paralyzed by internal divisions until Congress settled the argument for them at the eleventh hour. You can hear those divisions reflected in this unauthorized bit of State Department snark:

[O]ne State Department official described it as in large part an effort by the Obama administration to counter charges that it has been weak on other human rights fronts, including Saudi Arabia, China, Bahrain, Vietnam, and Iraq. This official said the move was not expected to have any effect on the regime’s behavior and was largely “a legacy move” by the Obama White House. [….]

However, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch defended targeting Kim, saying talks were dead. “This is an area where the administration is not acting politically or cynically,” he said. “They are actually trying to do the right thing.” [Reuters]

The good news is that the right officials sound determined to continue investigating abuses and adding names to the SDN list. The bad news is that there are just seven months left in this administration — enough to do some damage, but not enough to devote resources to a sustained investigation.

South Korea is also joining the campaign, following its promising reports from Africa and Cambodia, whose Prime Minister has promised to “reconfigure ties” with Pyongyang. Yonhap reports that, after a meeting between the South Korean and Qatari foreign ministers in Seoul last week, Qatar has “has been limiting the issuance of new visas to North Korean workers.” Significantly, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se also “called for Qatar’s continued interest in the human rights situation of North Korean laborers in the Middle Eastern nation.”

Although U.N. Security Council resolutions do not directly ban the use of North Korean labor, the same argument I’ve made against Kaesong applies equally well to the income Pyongyang generates from labor exports, and the potential for that income to be used for WMD programs.

Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup, has received bad press about its use of North Korean laborers recently. Earlier this year, two North Korean workers defected in Qatar, although subsequent reports have not clarified whether they escaped. At the time, a hundred North Korean workers mutinied in nearby Kuwait. They were repatriated on special Air Koryo flights.

Oh, and Foreign Minster Yun also asked his Qatari counterpart “for his support for South Korean firms seeking to participate in various infrastructure projects in Qatar ahead of” the World Cup. Nothing wrong with that, I guess.

If Qatar follows through on the promise, and if the North Korean workers’ visas expire soon, this could be yet another significant diplomatic win for South Korea. Qatar is one of the largest users of North Korean labor. Yonhap estimates that there are 2,000 North Korean laborers in Qatar; The Wall Street Journal puts the number at 1,800 in this excellent graphic:

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 7.45.00 AM

[Wall Street Journal]

Radio Free Asia, citing an unnamed source, says that “[t]he number of civilian workers sent to Kuwait has dropped from about 4,000 last year to approximately 3,200” as of last month. Since then, Pyongyang has increasingly sent active duty military personnel to replace them, perhaps because soldiers are more obedient than the increasingly restive civilian workers.

The soldiers, all in their 20s and belonging to engineering battalions in North Korea, are employed by the Middle East-based North Korean construction firms Namgang and Cholhyun, the source said.

“So far, the Namgang Company has dispatched about 800 North Korean [soldiers] as laborers to Kuwait and about 750 to Qatar,” he said, adding that the Cholhyun company too has “steadily increased” the number of soldiers it has sent to work in Kuwait since its first deployment of 70 soldiers in 2010.

“Almost 30 percent of North Koreans now working in Kuwait are soldiers on active service,” he said.

North Korean authorities tell the soldiers sent to the Middle East to grow their hair long to disguise their identity, RFA’s source said.

North Korea’s growing use of soldiers as laborers sent abroad to work may be due to their readiness to quickly obey orders and to work without pay during their period of service overseas, he said.

The soldiers are “feisty and aggressive,” though, and are resented by North Korean civilian workers for sometimes taking their jobs, he said.

“The ordinary laborers call the soldiers ‘Makhno’—a Russian word meaning ‘reckless gangsters’—and avoid all contact with them,” he said. [RFA]

Under pressure from bad press and (so I’ve been led to believe) back-channel U.S. diplomacy, Poland is also said to have stopped issuing new visas for North Korean workers.

Mongolia, another major user of North Korean labor, is also coming under pressure from U.S. and South Korean diplomats, and from the International Labor Organization.

North Koreans are hard-working and cheap to hire, said a labor broker for construction companies in Ulaanbaatar. He said North Koreans typically earn around $700 a month but receive around $150-$200, with the rest withheld by their government. Human-rights researchers cite similar figures.

One North Korean construction worker who moved to Mongolia in 2011 said he worked 12 to 14 hours each day. He said his pay had been reduced due to an economic downswing and he hadn’t been able to send any money to his wife and daughter in Pyongyang for a year. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]

In 2011, the BBC reported that North Korean workers based in Ulaan Bator were making “Designed in Scotland” clothing for the Edinburgh Woolen Mill. At the time, a British factory manager defended the arrangement, saying, “They’re hard workers. They don’t complain and they get stuck in. They’re quite skilled.” A British tabloid subsequently reported that he had left the company.

The WSJ also reports that North Korean “doctors” in Mongolia are peddling quack medicines, as in Tanzania:

After diagnosing a patient with a liver ailment, he recommended a $100 course of injections with medication that North Korean state media says can also be used to treat viral diseases such as Ebola and AIDS. “Yes, it really works,” he said.  [WSJ]

Below the fold, an excerpt from Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in Kiev last week, while meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Kerry was asked about sanctions against His Porcine Majesty, and answered this way:

Continue Reading

How happy are Kim Jong-un’s slaves? It depends on which slave you ask.

There may be no story on earth where the answer to a question is so dependent on who you ask as North Korea. Take the case of this NK News story from February, by an anonymous correspondent who went to Vladivostok, wandered into a local North Korean cafe, and found some North Korean construction workers who were — surprisingly enough! — willing to speak “freely” to a foreign journalist. Ready for your first clue?

He grins through a mouthful of gold teeth which, combined with his black shiny jacket, leather man-pouch and black wooly hat, gives him the air of someone it would be unwise to argue with.

But as so often with DPRK-related matters, a menacing external impression conceals a much more nuanced and complex picture. Mr. Cho is very friendly and talkative.

“Yes, that’s right it’s construction we do at Snegovaya,” he says as we discuss the men’s place of work. [NK News]

Here comes your next clue.

“We live in a dormitory on the building site. I’m an engineer and supervisor and Mr. Pak is one of my workers.”

The seniority is evident: Mr. Cho, who is in his 50s, is better dressed and appears more self-assured than the younger and still rather green-looking Mr. Pak. This is not surprising given how long the older man has been in the country.

The correspondent’s harsh questioning elicits that the men live in a comfortable dormitory, have the run of the city, are fed and treated well, and spend their weekends relaxing in cafes and shopping for cozy boots. The resulting story, however, does not mention the obvious possibility that the men are minders for the North Korean security forces.

North Korean workers, whose jobs are much sough-after back in the DPRK, can often be seen in small groups walking around Vladivostok, much freer than imprisoned “slaves” they have sometimes been labeled.

Although the observation of a Russian journalist that the North Korean workers “make unreasonable demands for extra food, cigarettes and vodka” suggests that the state does not quite provide for all of the workers’ needs, it isn’t exactly the Gulag Archipelago, either. Still, a review of the record reveals some niggling contradictions, such as the North Korean worker in Vladivostok who had set himself on fire just a month before. Or the very need for a new treaty between the two countries, to ensure the prompt repatriation of North Koreans who try to flee from their splendor.

But before you conclude that Russia is the workers’ paradise for North Koreans — well, for most of them, anyway — read what a Daily NK correspondent found in the logging camps near Khabarovsk more recently.

According to testimony given to Daily NK at the end of the month by a North Korean laborer in Russia, escapees who are apprehended face extremely ruthless punishment in order to deter future attempts by others. In one such example, a laborer had his Achilles tendon severed by the authorities. In another case, the laborers were forced to lie down and had their legs broken with a construction excavator. Upon their return to North Korea, these handicapped laborers and their families are sent to political prison camps.

Another laborer sent to the coastal province of Khabarovsk, Russia, at the beginning of the year testified to Daily NK that, “Previously, a worker fled from the worksite and hid out in a nearby church, where he was later discovered and caught. The SSD agents used a huge excavator to crush him. He was denied proper medical attention thereafter and became disabled. It’s impossible for these SSD agents to forgive an escape attempt and so they made an example out of him.”

He continued, “The last time we saw our colleague in question, he was skin and bones, injured, and had nothing but a simple bandage on his leg. He was forcibly repatriated in that condition. This is not an unusual or rare occurrence. Some laborers who try to escape have their Achilles tendon cut, and others are beaten with pieces of lumber. These kinds of escape attempts happen from time to time, but even if the laborers manage to flee, it is very difficult for them to survive. They have no choice but to wander about.” [Daily NK]

The Daily NK isn’t the only source to find horrific conditions in the Siberian camps.

Lee Yong-ho, a defector who was a truck driver at a Russian logging camp, said he often worked 12 to 14 hours per day but never thought about his working conditions.

“Slaves? Well, I didn’t actually think about something like that. I only thought how much I could earn each month,” said Lee, now a manual laborer in South Korea.

Kim, who worked at a different Siberian logging camp with about 900 other North Koreans, said dozens of workers died during his stay, many after being hit by falling trees. He said dead workers were stored for months in some vacant houses, with their entire bodies except their heads wrapped by blankets.

“It was so cold there that they hadn’t decomposed. Their faces looked just the same as before,” he said. “I once touched some of their faces and it was like touching ice.”

Lee Yong-ho also saw frozen bodies stored. It was cheaper to them home in groups. [AP]

And so forth.

So, how can we reconcile these jarringly different accounts? For one thing, NK News‘s story relied heavily on the account of at least one “supervisor” who fed the correspondent a narrative and found his mark willing to swallow it without much further investigation. NK News‘s story doesn’t specify how widely its author ranged to question that narrative, or what efforts he made (like, say, those of Vice’s correspondent in Poland) to speak to workers surreptitiously. There’s no indication that he pulled pay or employment records, or did any of the commendable leg-work Vice’s reporter did that exposed the lies of the North Koreans’ Polish employers. Indeed, several years ago, Vice’s Shane Smith visited logging camps in Siberia and, though he found none of the horrors the Daily NK did, also found some extraordinary efforts at secrecy and control designed to keep prying eyes away. In other words, the greater the depth of the reporting, the more credible it is. The same obviously applies to the Daily NK, which has just begun publishing a series of articles on overseas workers.

Second, and whatever our concerns about the depth of the reporting, conditions for construction workers in Vladivostok might just be very different than conditions for loggers in Khabarovsk. After all, abuses in the middle of a city would be less likely to escape notice and exposure than abuses out in the taiga. This brings us to a second problem with NK News‘s report: the implication that its findings are representative of conditions for North Korean workers in Russia overall. I don’t want to overstate this; after all, the report does distingish the accessibility of its North Korean subjects in Vladivostok from those in China. But in the end, it pursues a narrative popular among “engagers” and other anti-anti-North Korean types — that overseas work is better than work inside North Korea, and ergo, not slavery. The latter doesn’t quite follow from the former, of course, but as they did in the American South, conditions for North Korean slaves undoubtedly vary. It’s never a safe thing to build a narrative on a single interview. In the end, the report’s greatest flaw may be its failure to take note of the many other reports finding conditions for North Koreans in Russia to be subhuman.

The lesson here? Several come to mind. First — as the AP’s humiliation in Pyongyang has repeatedly reinforced — never accept a North Korean minder’s narrative at face value. Second, question everything you’re told by hunting for documentary evidence to confirm or refute it. Third, make an effort to show us the bigger picture. And finally, semantics matter. As Lee Yong-ho says, North Koreans are so conditioned by their experiences at home that they probably don’t think of themselves as slaves. Asking a North Korean — especially a North Korean minder, whose living conditions may be just fine, and also grossly atypical — isn’t very useful for our conclusions about the implications of these arrangements under international law. If you’re going to argue that someone is or isn’t a “slave,” at least take the trouble the Leiden Asia Center did and try to define the term meaningfully.  In the end, what makes a slave a slave is whether he has the choice to sell his labor freely.

Continue Reading

A strike by North Korean workers in Kuwait portends a dark fate for them, and for Kim Jong-un.

I first learned that North Korea had exported laborers to Kuwait when I heard that those workers were providing thirsty locals with a valuable public service by brewing black-market moonshine for them. Then, in April, a report emerged that seemed almost too remarkable to be true — 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait had mutinied against their minders to protest the extra work and unpaid wages coincident to the “70-day battle” leading up to North Korea’s party congress in May. (In nearby Qatar, two more workers also fled from their worksite to a local police station.)

At the time, I speculated that the workers in Kuwait may have been driven to perform extra labor because of the seizure, by Sri Lankan authorities, of $150,000 in “wages” being carried from nearby Oman to China, cash that presumably would have been deposited in a Bureau 39-controlled account there. I also took note of reports that the North Koreans were having difficulties accessing the banking system and smuggling bulk cash across the border from China to North Korea. I hoped that U.S. and South Korean diplomats in Kuwait would intervene to help rescue as many of the workers as possible from repatriation to an uncertain fate. And regardless of whether the workers escaped repatriation, I worried (and still do) about the welfare of the workers’ families back in North Korea.

Obviously, not all defection stories about North Korea hold up under closer scrutiny, and hearing nothing about this one for so long, I’d begun to harbor doubts about it. Now, however, an independent source is corroborating the initial report and adding new facts:

“As people began to disobey orders and desert their workplaces, North Korean authorities belatedly took steps to tackle the issue,” RFA said. “On May 17, they quickly summoned dozens of North Korean workers who had caused problems by resuming Air Koryo flights between Pyongyang and Kuwait, which had been halted on Feb. 23.”

In March, some North Korean laborers demanded they be paid properly when their employer urged them to earn more money to send to the Pyongyang regime ahead of a large congress of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party in May, RFA added.

[….]

Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said North Korea appears to be checking on the situation of its overseas workers.

“We think the strikes and various actions of North Korean workers abroad could be the result of sanctions on the country,” ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee said during a regular press briefing. [Yonhap]

Via KBS, we also learn that Air Koryo flights between Pyongyang and Kuwait were suspended shortly after the President signed H.R. 757 and shortly before the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, but that North Korea has resumed those flights for the purpose of repatriating its rebellious workers to God-only-knows-what fate.

I’d be most grateful to anyone who can provide me a copy of the original RFA report. The report has three important implications, which I’ll take in ascending order of importance. 

First, this is another sign that the regime’s overseas cash-earning operations may be entering the “death spiral” I first spoke of here. As sanctions and diplomatic pressure cut the flow of hard currency to Pyongyang, enterprises that had once been profitable will terminate or become unprofitable, and Pyongyang will squeeze its remaining overseas workers harder to keep up “loyalty” payments. There is recent evidence that the restaurant business isn’t bringing in as much cash as it did previously. Other examples of this pressure include the termination of profitable labor exports to the Ugandan police and Polish shipyards. You can expect Pyongyang’s overseas income to diminish further in the wake of the Treasury Department’s 311 designation, as even profitable enterprises face increased difficulty repatriating their profits. 

As the profits fall or become harder to repatriate, the benefits to Pyongyang of maintaining those overseas enterprises will fall, and the risks will also rise. As workers are pushed to their emotional breaking points, the risk of defections and mass protests will increase. To preempt that risk, the regime will withdraw workers from high-risk locations, which will further depress its revenues and raise pressure on the earners that remain. Examples include the withdrawal of North Korean students from China and a report that the regime is keeping its fishing boats in port to prevent defections, or perhaps more of those embarrassing “ghost ship” incidents. (Seafood exports had been a key source of revenue for Pyongyang, but evidently, if the state can’t export seafood for cash, the nutritional needs of the North Korean people don’t justify sending the fishing fleet out.)

As Pyongyang withdraws its overseas industries, the trading companies and workers in the remaining cash-earning industries will then come under increased stress. The “200-day battle” Pyongyang just announced to a people who are already exhausted and demoralized by the last “70-day battle” will further exacerbate this. It could instigate more dissent and defections, or cause North Korean operatives to make mistakes that will get them arrested or expelled. The remaining industries then become attractive targets for the South Korean NIS or NGOs offering to help them escape, or for legal attack, such as through the use of Executive Order 13722. And so on.

Second, to an even greater extent than the defection of 13 restaurant workers from Ningpo, China, the Kuwait incident illustrates the very real potential for North Koreans to organize mass political action despite close surveillance by the world’s most totalitarian state. As with the restaurant workers, presumably, these workers would have been hand-picked and vetted by the state for loyalty and obedience, yet desperation not only drove them to dissent, but to share their dissent and organize a mass act of resistance against the state. This report contradicts every expert who says, “It can’t happen.” On the contrary, it has already happened plenty of times, and will continue to happen. The real question is whether the regime can continue to contain, localize, and suppress incidents like these (and as long as North Koreans can’t communicate with each other, it will).

Third, even if Pyongyang can contain each of these mass incidents and survive the coming financial siege in the short term, these workers have shown us the potential for a long-term strategy to subvert the regime’s political control within North Korea itself. In this manifesto, I proposed such a long-term strategy for building clandestine, yet initially apolitical, civil organizations at the town, village, and factory level throughout North Korea as a foundation for (1) a post-reunification civil society and (2) a non-violent resistance movement. That movement would start by building clandestine farms, humanitarian NGOs, churches, newspapers, factories, and unions, taking on an increasingly political character with time. Once new, hard-to-censor methods of communication become available, these could overwhelm the state’s apparatus of censorship, facilitate regional and nationwide organization, and even apply some of the resistance methods the Albert Einstein Institute advocates. The ultimate objective of that strategy would be a nationwide general strike. While those tactics are still unthinkable today, Kuwait has provided a laboratory that has performed a limited, but successful, experiment with this theory.

Or, Pyongyang could bow to the inevitable and negotiate its peaceful, gradual transition to normalcy.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

Stop saying N. Korean overseas laborers aren’t slaves. They are, and here’s proof.

You absolutely must watch this extraordinary work of investigative journalism by Vice, exposing the North Korean slave labor racket in Poland. There are English subtitles available.

What is so exceptional about this reporting is that its detailed and careful investigation makes it immediately actionable. With a little googling, it’s possible to identify the names, position titles, and e-mail addresses of the Polish and North Korean companies involved.

That’s enough for the Treasury Department to add all of them to the list of Specially Designated Nationals for violating Executive Order 13722, which prohibits “engag[ing] in, facilitat[ing], or [being] responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.”

The prime target of designation should be the Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation, Segori-dong, Pothonggang District, Pyongyang, and the DPR Korea Chamber of Commerce, P.O.Box 89, Jungsong-dong, Central District, Pyongyang, for supplying the laborers. As Vice notes, Rungrado was also implicated in the U.N. Panel of Experts’ most recent report for selling missile parts to Egypt. The Polish nationals and companies that knowingly employ this labor under such exploitative conditions — and who lie about it so blatantly — should also be designated, to make an example for other users of North Korean labor.

Although North Korean laborers in Europe (chiefly, Poland and Malta) are smaller in number than those in Asia and Africa, they also earn the regime more funds per capita than their counterparts in poorer countries. And do you suppose the working conditions for North Korean workers are better in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East? If the Obama Administration is serious about enforcing its new authorities, it should start by watching this report and taking careful notes.

~   ~   ~

Update: On a related note:

North Korean workers are toiling for Chinese factories that make clothes for global labels like Ralph Lauren and Burberry, Radio Free Asia reported Wednesday.

One of their employers is Mei Dao Garment in Hebei Province, a source told the radio station.

Mei Dao first employed 54 North Korean workers via a North Korean trading company from January to July 2012. In April last year it also established another firm in Dandong, Miryong Garment, as a joint venture with another North Korean company.

Mei Dao now employs hundreds of North Koreans, according to the source.

Garment maker Phoenix Gold in Dandong also employs about 1,200 workers, and 800 of them are from North Korea, the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]

That’s specific enough to investigate, either by an outside NGO, or by the retailers themselves.

Continue Reading

Under NKSEA, transactions in N. Korean slave labor would be punishable by prison time

Yet again, a news story is reporting that North Korea is sending workers abroad to toil in conditions tantamount to slavery:

When the North Korean carpenter was offered a job in Kuwait in 1996, he leapt at the chance. He was promised $120 a month, an unimaginable wage for most workers in his famine-stricken country, where most people are not allowed to travel abroad.

But for Rim Il, the deal soured from the start: Under a moonlit night, the bus carrying him and a score of other fresh arrivals pulled into a desert camp cordoned off with barbed-wire fences. There, 1,800 workers, sent by North Korea to earn badly needed foreign currency, were living together under the watchful eyes of North Korean government supervisors, Mr. Rim said. They worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or, often, midnight, seven days a week, doing menial jobs at construction sites.

“We only took a Friday afternoon off twice a month but had to spend the time studying books or watching videos about the greatness of our leader back home,” Mr. Rim said at a recent news conference in Seoul, the South Korean capital. “We were never paid our wages, and when we asked our superiors about them, they said we should think of starving people back home and thank the leader for giving us this opportunity of eating three meals a day.” [N.Y. Times, Choe Sang Hun]

The workers’ rights issue is the more obvious one, and more on that in a moment. There are a few other problems here, too, including the familiar question of how Pyongyang is spending the money, and the fact that U.N. member states are supposed to be keeping an eye on that sort of thing. Do the math, and it’s quite possible that Pyongyang is pulling down $300 million a year this way, which would make it a significant source of income. Ahn Myeong Chol of NK Watch speculates that Pyongyang uses the money to buy luxury goods, which would violate a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions. His guess is as good as mine, but only Kim Jong Un knows for certain. The other interesting detail is this one:

The Workers’ Party, the ruling party in North Korea, instructed a group in Kuwait to send home $500,000 a month, more than its members’ regular salaries combined, a North Korean supervisor who worked there from 2011 to last year told NK Watch.

When net income exceeds gross income, it’s time to be suspicious. One possibility is that North Korea is using “wages” as more than just a source of income. It may be commingling them with the proceeds of other illicit activities, such as arms sales. That’s commonly known as money laundering. Similar suspicions have been voiced about North Korea’s restaurants abroad.

~   ~   ~

I’ve previously written about the business ethics and legal issues surrounding North Korea’s labor practices abroad, including in Siberian logging camps, at future World Cup venues in Qatar, and in Malaysian mines.

They described a system where government minders monitored their movements and communications and required them to spy on one another. The minders often confiscated the workers’ passports.

“These workers face threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in North Korea if they attempt to escape or complain to outside parties,” the State Department said in a report published last year. “Workers’ salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money, claiming various ‘voluntary’ contributions to government endeavors.”

In theory, the Tariff Act of 1930 prohibits the import of slave-made goods into the United States. A Customs regulation at 19 C.F.R. § 12.42 also allows private petitioners to oppose the landing of goods made with forced labor in U.S. ports; however, few North Korean goods should be imported into the United States now, due to economic reasons, and the licensing requirements applicable under Executive Order 13,570. More fundamentally, the U.S. and North Korea are neither natural nor historic trading partners, which means that this strategy would only be useful in rare circumstances.

In a thoughtful paper, Marcus Noland suggested that those doing business with North Korea apply a code of ethics akin to the Sullivan Principles, which were once applied by U.S. investors in apartheid-era South Africa. In theory, if investors were required to report their North Korean investments in their SEC filings, shareholders could pressure them to adopt more ethical business practices. If North Korea were to be re-listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, the SEC’s Office of Global Security Risk would require the reporting of any such investments, and that requirement would apply to non-U.S. businesses that issue securities in the United States. Unfortunately, those who do business with North Korea are almost by definition unethical, unwilling to press ethical issues, or more concerned about competition from other unethical businesses than with business ethics.

This is where the NKSEA provides a more comprehensive answer, in the form of Section 104(a)(1)(F):

(1) CONDUCT DESCRIBED.—Except as provided in section 207, the President shall designate under this subsection any person the President determines to—

. . . .

(F) have knowingly engaged in or been responsible for serious human rights abuses by the Government of North Korea, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges and trial, forced labor or trafficking in persons, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, and other denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of a person;

Section 207 contains the humanitarian exceptions, for imports of food and medicine I wrote about here. And obviously, the U.S. has to have jurisdiction to impose these sanctions, such as the use of the U.S. financial system by one of the participants.

Note that this provision is mandatory. If the executive branch finds that a person or entity has “engaged in or been responsible for” human trafficking by the Government of North Korea, the Treasury Department is required to block the designated entity’s assets as they enter the U.S. financial system. Other potential sanctions include criminal penalties, including a $1 million fine, 20 years in prison, or a civil penalty of up to $250,000. The sanctioned person or entity may also be debarred from being awarded U.S. government contracts, or be denied a visa to enter the United States.

For those (such as banks) that facilitate such transactions, other discretionary sanctions may apply under Section 104(b)(1)(G), including the blocking of assets.

Some will argue, in response, that as bad as these working conditions are, they’re far worse in North Korea itself. But the fact that conditions in Qatar or Vladivostok are minimally better than in Hamhung does not make them acceptable. Is a living wage for the workers and their families too much to ask of a nominally socialist regime? Wasn’t the idea of economic engagement to loosen Pyongyang’s restrictive brutality and gently introduce it to the standards and norms the rest of the world lives by? Wasn’t part of the idea to improve the lives of the North Korean people, rather than to be just another way for its oligarchy to exploit its people and enrich itself? Or to undermine fair wages and living standards in the receiving nations?

As always, the question of engaging North Korea becomes a question of who changed whom.

After 20 years of “engagement,” there’s little evidence that any of North Korea’s partners have expected it to engage meaningfully enough to let its workers spend their own paychecks or work in safe conditions. At what point will the defenders of these arrangements expect to see meaningful change, or is this simply an open-ended hope? If the world doesn’t expect even this much of North Korea, where is the social value in engagement, and where is it realistically leading? How can it be anything but a worn-out justification for profiteering on slavery?

Continue Reading