North Korea Makes Billions from Forced Laborers Working in the EU

For our documentary 'Cash For Kim,' we spoke to Dr. Remco Breuker, an expert on forced North Korean labor in the EU.

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May 23 2016, 4:15pm

Still from the VICE documentary 'Cash for Kim'

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

After getting their hands on a report on the death of a North Korean labor worker at a Polish shipyard, VICE Germany recently mounted an investigation into European companies that employ North Korean laborers.

For its documentary, VICE Germany spoke to Dr. Remco Breuker, professor of Korean studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Breuker heads an international task force consisting of lawyers, scientists, and human rights experts who do research on forced North Korean laborers working in the EU. Breuker had many more interesting things to say than would fit in the documentary, so here's an extended, slightly edited version of the conversation VICE host Sebastian Weis had with him.

VICE: Why did you feel you needed to start this task force?
Professor Breuker: We heard the news that the DPRK had forced laborers working in the European Union—which was strange, to say the least. North Korea is particularly notorious for its disdain for human rights, and it's very difficult to do anything about that. You can try to pressure Kim Jong-un, but that changes nothing substantial.

What kind of people are in this task force?
We're a group made up of people from different backgrounds. I have an expertise in Korean studies, and there's another member with the same background. But there are also experts on labor laws, international labor laws, human rights, North Korean studies, and people with expertise in government.

How long have you known that there are laborers from North Korea working in the EU?
We've known for quite some time, actually. There have been laborers in the Czech Republic, for example—that ended in 2006 or 2007. Eastern European countries have traditionally always had a better relationship with North Korea than most Western European countries, and many of them still maintain that relationship. So you'll find the most North Korean laborers in those countries.

Why does North Korea send laborers abroad?
Because of money. For the last two or three years, North Korea hasn't been able to export as much, so any way to make hard currency for the country is welcome. That's why they send people all over the world. They get some from China and countries in Africa, but there's just more money to be made in Europe—especially when you don't pay taxes, and you don't pay for any kind of insurance. You can earn as much as £24,000 [$35,000] per individual North Korean laborer a year. That's a lot of money.

Are the North Korean laborers working in Poland getting paid?
It seems that all the money they make goes to the state, directly or through the company they work for—which is owned by the state. There has been some research on this, and the estimation is that a North Korean laborer in Europe earns about £55 to £110 [$80 to $160] per month. That's what he or she can keep. But these laborers get paid much more than that, which goes straight to the North Korean state. That makes around £500 [$720] per person, per month. North Korea is estimated to have earned $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion USD per year, according to a recent UN report.

Is it fair to say the North Korean laborers are a kind of slaves?
That's a very complicated question. People in North Korea sign up for the job voluntarily. They are proud to be able to go abroad. But the horrible part of the story is that many of them get hurt on the job, and that their working conditions are really, really bad. The work is dirty, dangerous, and underpaid—that's why North Korean laborers are being hired to do it. They work hard, they obey, they're cheap, and they do all the work no one else wants to do. But everybody wants to get out of North Korea—they try to survive and sign up to go abroad. So I don't think you can speak of voluntary labor, really.

If I see North Korean workers in Poland or anywhere else in the EU—can I go talk to them?
You can, but the consequences for a worker, his colleagues, and his family at home could be bad. One of the criteria for a North Korean laborer is actually that he has a family with at least two children, so that his family can be used as leverage. So I'd advise against talking to anyone who's an employee of the North Korean state in Europe.

How can something like this still happen in the EU?
Because we like money as much as anyone else. There is a lot of money to be made here.

Doesn't it violate the European Convention on Human Rights?
The fact that North Korean laborers are working under these conditions is against many EU regulation laws and international treaties. You're obliged to take care of the basic conditions under which they work. The fact that they don't own their salary, for example, is a complete violation.

What would you call what North Korea does? What would you compare it with?
I think North Korea is the world's largest job agency. They send people where they're needed, to whoever is willing to pay. North Korea doesn't behave like a state. It behaves like a company. It thinks only of the interest of its shareholders and does everything to make sure the CEO and the board of directors stay in power and make as much money as they can.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

A previous version of this interview contained incorrect conversion errors. VICE regrets the error.

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