North Koreans Working Abroad Suffer High Rates of Death From Accidents, Stress

nkorea-truck-april2012.jpg North Korean workers ride in the back of a truck in Pyongyang in a file photo.

North Koreans sent to labor in foreign countries to earn money for their cash-strapped regime are dying in abnormally large numbers due to long work hours and poor on-site conditions, sources say.

A total of 112 North Korean workers lost their lives in foreign countries during the period January 2015 to April of this year, a South Korean expert on North Korea told RFA’s Korean Service this week.

“Heart attacks and stroke were the main causes of death, followed by deaths caused by local diseases and accidents such as falls,” RFA’s source said, citing foreign media reports and speaking on condition of anonymity.

Most deaths occurred in Russia, accounting for 61 deaths out of the total, followed by 46 deaths that took place in the Middle East and Africa, the source said.

Deaths occurring on fishing vessels at sea or in other out-of-the-way places could not be added to the total owing to the difficulty of reporting accurate numbers from these locations, he said.

Estimating that about 50,000 North Koreans are now working overseas, their mortality rate for 2015 works out to 16 deaths per 10,000—a rate far greater than that for worker deaths in other countries recorded by the International Labor Organization two years before, RFA’s source said.

Poor working conditions, including a lack of air conditioning or heating on work sites, “deadly” working hours sometimes exceeding 15 hours a day on average, and a lack of timely medical treatment for workers who are injured or ill are primarily to blame for the unusually high numbers, he said.

And with 32 North Korean worker deaths abroad already recorded from January to April of this year, this year’s toll alone could top 100 if the trend continues, he said.

Compensation seized

North Korean officials meanwhile skim large amounts from the payments offered in compensation to the families of workers who have died on the job, the source said.

“When a North Korean worker dies in a foreign country, the company that hired the worker will provide from 5,000 to tens of thousands of dollars in compensation, but the authorities will give only five or 10 percent of this money to the family,” he said.

“The rest is shared with other party officials” as it makes its way to the coffers of the central government in Pyongyang, he said.

“On one occasion, North Korean authorities issued an order to ‘handle situations well’ so that there would be no interruption in the flow of compensation payments made in the case of worker deaths,” he added, quoting information gained from a North Korean defector who once worked in the Middle East.

North Korea, which has been placed under multiple and increasing United Nations economic sanctions for conducting banned nuclear and missile tests, has sought new revenues by sending its citizens abroad to earn hard currency.

These labor exports have drawn scrutiny from U.N. agencies and governments charged with upholding sanctions aimed at denying the Kim Jong Un regime the cash it needs to fund its illicit weapons programs.   

Reported by Albert Hong for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Dohyun Gwon. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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