It’s not good to be a North Korean guest worker these days. As part of stepped up sanctions against the rouge nation’s accelerated nuclear and ballistic missile development programs, countries around the world are expelling North Koreans.
They are being sent back to an impoverished country which continues to spend the bulk of its money on sophisticated weapons systems.
North Korea is a nation where over 70 percent of its citizens have no electricity, over 125,000 are imprisoned, and food and jobs are scarce. Its dictator sends conscripted workers overseas to earn money to prop up his government. They have no choice but to do as government officials tell them.
At the program’s height in 2015, North Korea sent 150,000 of its citizens abroad, according to U.N. estimates. In return, the government received roughly $2 billion garnished wages.
The United Nations Security Council nixed the program banning countries from bringing in North Korean workers as part of additional sanctions against the Kim Jon Un regime. The UN is concerned about North Korea’s “forced worker” program where its citizens work long hours in foreign lands, live in crowded squatter’s quarters with meager rations, and forfeit their paychecks to their government.
The UN is worried about human rights abuses. The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimates almost 46 million people are living as slaves globally. North Korea ranks worst for prevalence, with one in 20 people thought to be in some form of modern slavery.
Europe, once a lucrative destination for North Korea’s thousands of so-called guest workers, is now effectively closing itself off to the state-exported migrants. For years, North Koreans sewed textiles in Bulgaria and forged auto parts in Czech factories. They were shadowed by government minders who confiscated their pay, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Here’s how it worked.
The government vetted North Koreans workers before sending them overseas to minimize the risk of defection. “They only select workers who are married and have children – hostage-taking essentially,” Michael Glendinning the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK) said. “If they were to defect the family would likely face some kind of punishment in a political prison camp, a re-education camp or — in extreme cases — execution.”
At Poland’s historic shipyards in Gdańsk, there was steady stream of North Korean welders over the last decade. They pulled two-year stints of 12-hour shifts, six days a week. They lived in apartments where four to five workers shared a room with one bed each. The workers cooked dried fish and bags of rice which were stashed under the steps. Mostly, the welders worked and lived in isolation.
Ironically, the Gdańsk shipyards, where North Korean “forced labor” worked, was the site where Polish labor leader Lech Wałęsa led a series of strikes by 17,000 ship builders to overthrow the Communist suppression in eastern Europe in the late 1980s. Today, the shipyard’s “Gate 2” is a memorial to the uprising which triggered the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.
The other problem is even though the commercial shipbuilding center has shifted to South Korea, Japan and China, those shipyards are laying off workers as they modernize and are highly unlikely to hire North Koreans. According to the Korea Offshore and Shipbuilding Association, the number of shipbuilding workers which exceeded 200,000 in 2015 will be less than 100,000 this year.
What is going in North Korea ought to be a lesson to all of us. Our system of government, as imperfect as it is, allows us freedoms, opportunities and abundance of the essentials. We should not take it for granted.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.