Workers in North Korea have soured on the idea of assignments abroad to generate much-needed foreign currency for the cash-strapped regime amid reports of exploitation by local authorities, according to sources inside the country.
North Korean workers who are sent to China, Russia, and countries in the Middle East and Africa routinely have their wages appropriated by authorities back home in order to boost the national coffers of leader Kim Jong Un, reports say.
Many North Koreans used to want to work abroad to earn more money than they would back home, but now some have realized that they can earn enough to live comfortably without being exploited or leaving the one-party state, a source in Pyongyang, who declined to be name, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“A man who went to Namibia in Africa returned to North Korea after working hard there, but cannot collect even half the money he was owed,” the source said.
Although North Korean authorities promised to pay him the money when he returned home, he still hasn’t received it and is now suffering from a disease, the source said.
He said North Koreans authorities sent the man to Namibia to work in construction for three years, promising to pay him U.S. $100 a month—an unimaginable salary for North Koreans who are prohibited from traveling abroad on their own.
But after they kept 30 percent of the money as a “loyalty fund,” the man’s net monthly wage, minus insurance and food expenses, was about U.S. $50 dollars, the source said.
The source criticized North Korean authorities for their poor treatment of workers abroad, adding that he knew others who went to work in Russia and China and had received the same treatment.
Making money for the regime
North Korea has sent tens of thousands its citizens abroad to work in its factories since the 1980s to raise money for its regime, according to a recent report by Arirang News, an international English-language network based in Seoul.
Many of them endure long hours of physically grueling labor sometimes under the watchful eyes of North Korean minders in Russian logging camps, Chinese factories or Middle Eastern construction sites.
They also must put up with inhumane conditions such as sweltering heat, freezing temperatures and few or no holidays. Some lack heat and water in sparse and crowded sleeping facilities.
North Korean authorities dismiss such reports of exploitation as false.
NK Watch, a Seoul-based human rights group, says about 100,000 North Koreans are now sent to 40-some countries and earn about U.S. $3 billion annually for the regime, according to the Arirang News report.
Rights activists suggest that the number of those sent abroad has risen significantly since 2012 because of tighter international sanctions on North Korea. The sanctions followed North Korean nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, and a satellite launch in 2012 deemed applicable to ballistic missile development.
North Koreans have complained about authorities back home exploiting them, prompting the United Nations to investigate human rights abuses of those sent to work in foreign countries.
It also had been reported that North Korea planned to export a large number of workers to expand the national budget to pay for elaborate celebrations of the 70th anniversary of Liberation Day in August and 70th anniversary of the founding of Worker’s Party in October.
On March 16, NK Watch and its partner organization UN Watch asked the U.N.’s special envoy on North Korea to examine the accusations of overseas workers and hold accountable both North Korea and the governments that cooperate with it, NK Watch said on its Facebook page.
Marzuki Darusman, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, said he would review the accusations by North Koreans workers who endure “slave-like” conditions.
As stories about authorities withholding parts of workers’ salaries or delaying payments have spread, more North Korean residents are trying to avoid being sent to work abroad, sources said.
Many people can earn money if they work hard in local markets where they can earn enough to live, so they don’t want to go abroad anymore, a North Korean woman from Nampo city in South Pyongan province told RFA.
Markets—especially those along border areas with China—are thriving, and North Koreans who sell goods there can earn about U.S. $10 daily, a substantial amount for residents of the impoverished country.
The other benefit of staying home and working in local markets is keeping families together, sources said.
Authorities typically send men to work abroad without their wives and children to ensure they will return to the country. Nevertheless, families worry that the head of the household will not return if he goes to work abroad, creating distrust and marital strife that can lead to divorce.
Because of this, some of residents have recently given up going abroad, preferring to live comfortably with their family members, even though they make less money, sources said.
Reported by Young Jung of RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yunju Kim. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.