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Rights Groups Decry Plight of North Korean Laborers Overseas

  • Lee Yeon Cheol

Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, has said he will investigate allegations of inhumane treatment of overseas North Korean workers.

Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, has said he will investigate allegations of inhumane treatment of overseas North Korean workers.

Human rights advocates say North Koreans working abroad are laboring under slave-like conditions.

In a 2012 study, the North Korean Strategy Center, a private, defector-run advocacy and research group in Seoul, estimated that as many as 65,000 North Koreans were working in more than 40 countries, mainly in Russia, China, Mongolia and the Middle East — and were doing so under terrible conditions.

Three years later, T. Kumar, international advocacy director for Amnesty International USA, said the issue has not received attention that it deserves.

“One issue that was missed in the Commission of Inquiry report was the plight of North Korean workers around the world,” Kumar said, referring to a U.N. panel report on North Korean human rights. He made the comments Tuesday during a panel discussion in Washington.

The U.N. report detailed human rights violations by North Korea but did not address the working conditions of North Korean laborers overseas.

Seung-Ju Lee, researcher at the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, who also participated in the event, said North Korean workers “go through forced labor and their wages are exploited, which clearly constitutes human rights violations.”

Sarah Mendelson, director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said such abuses were tantamount to state-sponsored trafficking in forced labor.

“Workers are told maybe one thing, but then they end up in another place with their passports being taken away, which is a classic example [of human trafficking],” Mendelson said.

Some argue that working overseas could have a positive side by providing North Korean workers with a rare opportunity to experience a market economy. However, Marcus Noland, director of studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, dismissed this.

“My sense is that these workers are so regimented that their actual contact with the outside world, in that sense, is extremely limited. And so, in fact, little learning occurs,” Noland said.

Roberta Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy group, said a new strategy is needed to address the issue effectively. She noted last week's move by Qatar’s Construction Development Company to fire 90 North Korean workers, nearly half of its North Korean workforce, for violating its labor regulations. Cohen said CDC’s action could set a precedent for other companies.

Recently, Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea, said he would investigate allegations of inhumane treatment of overseas North Korean workers by their supervisors.

Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report.

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