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EXCLUSIVE: Poland Suspends Issuing Visas for North Korean Workers

FILE - A welder from North Korea works in the Gdansk shipyard, in Gdansk, northern Poland, March 24, 2006. Poland has stopped issuing visas for North Korean workers.

Poland has stopped issuing visas for North Korean workers amid reports that Pyongyang is sending its citizens to foreign countries in harsh working conditions to earn hard currency.

The Polish Foreign Ministry told VOA that Poland has not issued visas for North Korean workers after the North conducted its fourth nuclear test in January. Poland issued 156 visas for North Korean workers last year, according to the ministry.

Last year, the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, a British-based group that advocates for human rights in North Korea, released a report that named Poland as one of nearly 20 countries that hosts North Korean laborers. Poland is one of two European Union countries on the list.

Controversial scheme

"As the member state of the EU, we are convinced that the primary duty of the international community is to promote this legitimate concern. DPRK's citizens working in Poland, in shipyard or any other workplace, are subject to the Polish law and are not discriminated in any way," said the ministry in an email sent Saturday to VOA.

"The government of the Republic of Poland follows with great attention information on DPRK citizens' employment in Poland, especially concerning working conditions and observance of labor law standards," the ministry said.

Some media speculate that as many as 800 North Koreans are working in Poland, but the ministry says only 482 work permits were issued for North Koreans as of 2015. The figure accounts for less than 1 percent of all work permits issued in the country.

"Existing cooperation in this field is being carried out on the basis of private agreements between entities from Poland and the DPRK," the ministry said. "Polish authorities neither mediate in any way in employing DPRK citizens in Poland, nor do they carry out promotional campaigns for this purpose."

International pressure

In March, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order imposing fresh sanctions on North Korea to curb the North's nuclear weapons program. The measure allows the U.S. Treasury Department to freeze assets of any party found to have engaged in exportation of workers from the North. A U.N. report found last year that Pyongyang earns as much as $2.3 billion a year from workers exported to other countries, where they are often subject to harsh working conditions.

On Tuesday, South Korea's Foreign Ministry welcomed the Polish move, saying there have been growing international concerns about the practice.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Korean Service.