Hows the Kimchi? Secret Lives of North Korean Workers Abroad

2007-01-17
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Workers200.jpg
Feb. 27, 2006: North Korean workers toil at sewing machines at a South Korean-run plant in the inter-Korean industrial park in Kaesong. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

SEOUL—Under U.N. sanctions and facing the prospect of renewed famine, tightly closed North Korea has found a new source of hard currency—exporting contract workers to labor in grueling conditions overseas for wages then taken by the government, experts say.

Residents of Qatar who have nothing to do with construction sites may not even know about the existence of North Koreans here. However, given my line of work, I see North Koreans quite often. Although they approach Qataris or third country nationals, they always try to avoid encounters with South Koreans.

“They are desperate to get out, and they sell everything they have, even their own house and their relatives’ houses, in order to be allowed to work overseas,” Kim Tae San, who testified last year on North Korean migrant labor to the European Parliament, told RFA’s Korean service.

“They go overseas and work hard, but they eat and live worse than the beggars in those foreign countries,” said Kim, who estimates that at least 70,000 North Koreans are currently working in various countries around the world.

Kim once managed around 200 North Korean workers at a joint venture shoe factory in the Czech Republic. He said Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Mongolia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Russia had all used North Korean migrant labor, and that conditions in other countries were often worse than those he witnessed in the Czech Republic and Poland.

Huge sacrifices

He said North Koreans who win a coveted place on overseas work teams are willing to put up with any hardship, just to make a little more money.

“Just because they have to make up for the huge investment they made to secure a workplace overseas, they are willing to put up with any hardship just to make a little more money,” said Kim, who defected to South Korea in 2002.

“It is considered unacceptable that they have to work for 14 or 16 hours a day, but they want to work even more. Even so, they still try to work a second or third job.”

The reason for the second job? They rarely enjoy proceeds from the first, according to Kim, who testified at the March 2006 hearing that the wages of North Korean workers dispatched overseas were deposited into a collective bank account controlled by the North Korean government.

“In the Czech Republic, the North Korean workers were paid in U.S. dollars,” he told RFA. “The government took away much of their pay, but they were still left with something, and that is why they worked hard.”

“I remember an 18-year-old North Korean girl who had injured her hand and kept on doing grueling leather work, producing twice more than her Czech, Ukrainian, or Mongolian peers. That is precisely why the Czechs are always willing to welcome North Korean workers,” he said.

Just because they have to make up for the huge investment they made to secure a workplace overseas, they are willing to put up with any hardship, just to make a little more money.

North Koreans have also been farmed out to work in Qatar. In a brief interview Dec. 7 with a North Korean migrant at the Asian Games women’s soccer match between North and South Korea, one worker said he had been in the Gulf state for two years.

“I have been in Qatar for two years now, and I’m very happy that I’m going to return home soon,” said the worker, who declined to be identified. Asked if he had managed to get hold of the beloved pickled cabbage dish kimchi, he said: “You can get it, but it is almost unaffordable.”

One South Korean resident of Qatar confirmed that many North Koreans seek second jobs during their overseas work trips and have to live in appalling conditions.

“Residents of Qatar who have nothing to do with construction sites may not even know about the existence of North Koreans here. However, given my line of work, I see North Koreans quite often. Although they approach Qataris or third country nationals, they always try to avoid encounters with South Koreans,” Yoon Choong Ho said.

North Koreans found consorting with South Koreans would likely be sent home, Yoon said. “But the South Koreans in Qatar believe that the North Korean supervisors take bribes from the workers and turn a blind eye to their after-hours activities,” he added.

Thousands in Qatar

Yoon said thousands of North Korean workers are thought to be working in Qatar, although no one knows the exact number.

“They mostly perform low-skilled labor, such as plastering and bricklaying. The North Koreans receive meager wages, even lower than the Nepali workers, who have been known to receive the lowest pay of all foreign laborers,” he said.

“The entire wage received by North Korean workers goes to the North Korean authorities. In order to make some money they can keep, they have to moonlight.”

According to Yoon, Nepali workers earn between U.S. $190 and U.S. $275 a month, while North Korean workers are paid a nominal monthly wage of about U.S. $170.

In Brussels, Kim Tae San also testified that more than half of the wages of North Korean women workers dispatched to the Czech Republic are deducted under the pretext of “voluntary contributions” for the cost of food for celebrations of Chairman Kim Jong Il’s birthday, or birthday gifts for the North Korean leader.

Yoon said North Koreans who work hard at their second jobs could earn U.S. dollars to take back home with them. But he said their living conditions are thought to be appalling.

“Although I haven’t visited their quarters, as outsiders are not allowed, I’ve heard that their living conditions are dreadful. Despite the hot weather, the air conditioning is turned on only for a little while, before they go to sleep.” He said their freedom of movement within Qatar is severely restricted, and that they are often picked on by police.

Report raises 'questions'

“For example, there have been instances of North Korean workers who were arrested as thieves and deported, simply because they had petted a camel in the street,” Yoon said.

The U.S. State Department's 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report identified “questions” regarding the control exercised by the North Korean government over workers dispatched to countries such as Mongolia, Russia, and the Czech Republic.

Oil and natural gas revenue mean Qatar has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world, estimated at more than U.S. $30,000. But its relatively small population of fewer than 900,000 means it needs a steady influx of foreign workers.

North Korea and Qatar established diplomatic relations in 1993 but have not yet reached agreement on exchanging embassies. North Korean workers are dispatched to Qatar through agencies based in China, experts say.

According to German public broadcaster ARD, French, German, and U.S. auto manufacturers are pressuring a Czech auto parts plant to ensure better protection of its North Korean women workers’ human rights.

The Snezka factory, located in Nachod near the Polish border, employs 82 skilled North Korean women who produce auto parts supplied to major firms including Renault, Opel, Volkswagen, and Mitsubishi, the report said.

The North Korean authorities retain about 70 percent of their wages, and their freedom is severely restricted through close surveillance by their North Korean supervisors. About 400 North Korean workers are currently in the Czech Republic, 90 percent of them women, ARD said.

Original reporting in Korean by Kyu Lee, Myeong Hwa Jang, and Naeri Kim. RFA Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Edited by Sooil Chun. Translated and researched by Greg Scarlatoiu and written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.