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Rights Expert Alarmed About North Korean Worker Conditions

Bath House North Korean workers use near their compound in Ouakam, Dakar (Photo: Christy Lee / VOA)
Bath House North Korean workers use near their compound in Ouakam, Dakar (Photo: Christy Lee / VOA)

A U.N. human rights expert has expressed concern over the working conditions of North Korean workers abroad in response to VOA’s report that uncovered North Korea’s illicit labor activities in Senegal.

“It’s quite revealing about this situation of the system that exists in North Korea regarding workers abroad,” Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said during an interview with VOA Korean Service Thursday.

Quintana said the VOA report reflects that “the system remains as it was conceived since the outset.”

Human rights groups have often accused North Korea of sending its citizens to foreign countries for forced labor to sustain its economy since the inception of the regime. The country is known to violate international labor practices when sending workers abroad, putting them to work under harsh conditions.

The VOA report revealed that approximately 30 North Korean workers were laboring under poor conditions at various construction sites in the Senegalese capital of Dakar in September. The North Koreans were doing construction work for private Senegalese companies such as Patisen in violation of international sanctions.

The workers were paid about $120 a month after having to remit a significant portion of their salary to the North Korean government, according to documents reviewed by VOA. Typically, North Korean government takes approximately 70% of workers’ salaries.

The workers were subject to heavy surveillance by North Korean authorities while working and off duty. They had limited communications with locals, internet access, and ability to travel, according to the VOA report.

Outdoor toilet North Korean workers use near their compound in Ouakam, Dakar (Photo: Christy Lee / VOA)
Outdoor toilet North Korean workers use near their compound in Ouakam, Dakar (Photo: Christy Lee / VOA)

Quintana said poor labor conditions of overseas North Korean workers are “the responsibility of North Korean government.”

Quintana continued, “The best way to address this issue is to engage with those countries who hosted these workers and to engage those private actors and companies who also have a responsibility.”

The U.N. expert said he recognizes the importance of international sanctions placed on North Korea in an attempt to prevent the country from sending its workers abroad to earn hard currency that could be used for its nuclear weapons program.

At the same time, Quintana believes it is equally important to find ways to protect the rights of North Korean workers who want to work abroad and to create acceptable labor conditions.

Acknowledging that the North Korean system of overseas workers has shortcomings, Quintana said, “We also know that the families of these North Korean workers benefit a lot from the income, even the low income that they receive working abroad.

“So this is something we need to bear in mind when we address the issue of overseas workers,” he continued.

Quintana said he plans to reach out to Senegalese authorities and urge them to comply with basic labor standards.

The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in August 2017 banning member states from forming joint entities with North Korea in their territories and hiring North Korean workers, in an effort to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program

A month later, the Security Council passed another resolution asking members to close any existing North Korean entities in their territories. Then in December of that year, the council urged members to return all North Korean workers home by December 2019.