Day 6

North Korea is farming out its citizens for forced labour in the E.U.

This week, a team of Dutch researchers delivered a report that shows North Korea is sending its citizens abroad to work as forced labourers in the European Union. They work 12-hour days, six days a week — and 90 per cent of their wages are funnelled straight back to the North Korean government. And this isn't only a problem in the E.U. The report's lead author, Dr. Remco Breuker, tells Brent why he has come to view the DPRK as "the world's largest illegal job agency."
Pictures of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il decorate April 25 House of Culture, the venue of Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) congress in Pyongyang, North Korea May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj - RTX2D1Y8 (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
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This week, a team of Dutch researchers delivered a report that shows North Korea is sending its citizens abroad to work as forced labourers in the European Union. They work 12-hour days, six days a week — and 90 per cent of their wages are funnelled straight back to the North Korean government.

It's like a  miniature replication of the  DPRK  system on E.U. soil.- Dr. Remco Breuker , Korean Studies professor at Leiden University

North Korean labourers have been identified in several E.U. countries, including both Poland and Malta, where they can legally obtain work permits. But as lead researcher Dr. Remco Breuker tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, the labourers' working conditions are unacceptable under E.U. law.

"They can't read newspapers, they can't watch TV. They can't listen to the radio; they don't have access to the internet, obviously," he says.

"It's like a  miniature replication of the DPRK system on E.U. soil."

People bow in front of bronze statues of former North Korean leaders in Pyongyang. Even in the European Union, North Korean workers must attend ideological sessions and are forbidden from accessing the Internet. (Kim Gwang Hyon/The Associated Press)

The workers are employed by North Korean corporations, owned by high-ranking North Korean officials or even by the state itself, which claim most of their earnings. Before being sent abroad, the workers are vetted carefully to ensure their loyalty to the regime.

Dr. Breuker finds the E.U.'s lack of action to address the problem incomprehensible.

"A number of European Members of Parliament have asked questions to the European commission," he says. "And it's not only the fact that the E.U. isn't undertaking any action against this kind of exploitation— but the E.U. has also indirectly funded the companies that hire these workers."

Appalling working conditions

Dr. Breuker's report comes on the heels of a Vice Media investigation that documents severe human rights abuses against North Korean workers in Poland. Vice journalist Sebastian Weis, who played a key role in the investigation, was able to speak with several of the labourers directly.

Everybody wants to get out of North Korea, because how much worse can things be outside of the country? - Sebastian Weis , documentary producer

"It was very difficult to speak to these workers because they were guarded every day, every second," he says. "They told me that they don't know how [much] money they actually earn, how high are their wages."

The labourers told Weis that they regularly work 12 hours a day during the week, and six or seven hours on Saturdays. They were forbidden from owning mobile phones.

"When they are for three or five years in Poland, they have no contact to their relatives, to their families," says Weis.

But many of the labourers did not appear to be aware that they were being exploited.

"Everybody wants to get out of North Korea, because how much worse can things be outside of the country? And so actually they sign up voluntarily to go abroad," says Weis.  

"They don't really know about working rights, and they don't know how much money they could earn, or would. They get the money when they get back to North Korea, and they're happy with any money they get. In my view, they really don't understand, or don't know, that they get exploited by the regime."

Dr. Remco Breuker believes North Korea operates more like a multinational conglomerate than a nation-state, with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as its CEO. (Kyodo via Reuters)

The world's largest illegal job agency

The exploitation of North Korean labourers has been well-documented in countries outside the E.U., including China and Russia.  According to the U.N., North Korea exports its forced labourers to more than 40 countries around the world — earning the state over $2 billion dollars USD per year.

Dr. Breuker believes that makes North Korea the world's largest illegal job agency.

"I don't think North Korea is a state any longer. In my estimation, North Korea has turned into a conglomerate of extremely neoliberal companies."

Within that model, Kim Jong Un is the CEO; North Korea's citizens are the employees. "The company doesn't care about the workers; they are expendable. It's about the maximization of profit, and that's it."

Dr. Breuker's report appears to have hit a nerve in Pyongyang — and Dr. Breuker suspects it has nothing to do with his allegations of human rights abuse.

"They don't care too much about human rights; they know their reputation is bad and it doesn't really hurt them. This investigation was different because this diminishes their ability to earn hard currency, and that's one of the mainstays of the regime."

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