By Chloë Sherliker, HRNK intern
The forced expatriation of North Korean labor forces to Russia and China has been happening since 1967. In an attempt to generate much needed hard currency for the Kim regime, it is estimated that over 46,000 Koreans have been exported as labor forces to more than forty different countries. North Koreans working in certain professions—loggers, miners, and seamstresses—have produced around 7-8% of North Korea’s total exports profits, while up to 90% of the workers’ salaries are repatriated to Pyongyang. It is estimated that this forced labor scheme earns North Korea $150 million to $230 million USD per year.
Most North Koreans work in China, and Russia. Others countries include the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, and Malaysia. Yet, a recent Vice documentary highlighted the significant number of North Koreans employed, both legally and illegally, for companies within the EU. High wages within the EU makes the dispatching of workers there a financially significant area for North Korea. With over 800 workers believed to be involved in the shipbuilding and construction sectors, the majority is concentrated within Poland. However, North Korean laborers can also be found in other European countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Malta, Austria, and the Czech Republic.
While a small number of North Koreans have been found to be working illegally, the majority have work permits and legally fit the requirements to work within EU states like Poland and the Czech Republic. Currently, thirty-two Polish companies have North Koreans registered as employees. In the Czech Republic, despite media attention and sanctions resulting in the decision to stop issuing employment visas from 2006, a few hundred North Koreans have continued to work in Czech factories. Legally, the North Korean workers appear to present no problems. They are well organized and “obedient,” causing few problems both in and out of the workplace.
The employment of North Koreans within the EU, however, provides financial support to an oppressive dictatorial regime and allows the North Korean government to extend their internal oppression of human rights overseas. Attempts have been made by foreign journalists to learn more about the lives of the North Koreans in Europe. Most were unable to even speak to them. Even if a nearby minder does not demand for communication to cease immediately, workers are often afraid to speak out about their living conditions, their opinions regarding North Korea, and perhaps most notably, about how much money they receive for their work.
Through Vice’s documentary, Cash for Kim: North Korean Forced Laborers in Poland, it is clear that the working environment North Koreans endure directly violates international standards of labor laws regarding health, safety, salary, and working hours. Hidden cameras reveal the daily life of the North Korean workers and a few hurried interviews conducted with the workers give brief insight into the lack of basic rights the workers have. North Korean workers in Poland are said to work twelve-hour shifts during weekdays, with a shorter shift of seven hours on Saturdays. They are not permitted to speak to anyone outside of their workplace; they are transported to work via bus in the early morning and return to their shared house in the evening. They are unable to interact with the locals of the host country and have no access to mobile phones and the Internet. A minder will bring food and other provisions for the workers directly to their home. Attempts to approach North Korean women in the Czech Republic also proved to be rather futile. Rare conversations with the workers were limited to a few minutes at most. Upon arrival in their new country, their passports are taken from them and communication with their families in North Korea is extremely limited. Perhaps most importantly, aside from a meager amount for living expenses, many North Korean workers do not receive compensation for their work. Many of the North Koreans interviewed stated that they had no idea how much they received or if they received wages at all.
This strict control of all aspects of workers’ life and failure to pay North Koreans for their work defies basic labor rights defined both in North Korea’s own domestic labor laws, and by international organizations such as the UN and the International Labor Organization (ILO). North Korea’s Labor Protection Law (LPL) states that the state “shall strictly enforce the principle of eight hours of labor, eight hours of rest and eight hours of study in workers’ daily labor structure” and that “The authorities, management and social collectives should regularize workers’ labor, normalize their study and guarantee their rest by properly combining labor, rest and study.” Similarly, all EU countries that have been listed by the UN as employing North Korean workers are members of the ILO. Therefore, they are subject to the principles listed within the ILO Constitution, which guarantee basic labor rights, such as “a rest period of at least 24 consecutive hours every seven days” and “a maximum of eight hours [worked] per day”. It is also worth noting that under Article 6 of the Rome Convention, employees are “to be governed by the law of the state in which the employee habitually carries out his work.” Any North Korean workers employed in an EU country then must follow that country’s respective labor laws.
In Article 7 of the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it is stated that member states must ensure that workers are entitled to “Fair wages and equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction of any kind” alongside “safe and healthy working conditions.” It also states that workers have the right to “Rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays.” Polish law complies with this standard: Polish workers are entitled to a minimum of twenty days of paid holiday and may work up to forty hours in a working week (eight hours per day). Similarly, Czech workers can expect to work a forty-hour week with Malta enforcing a forty-one hour working week., If employed by a Polish company, then North Koreans should expect to receive the same amount of paid holiday as a Polish worker.
North Korea is one of the few states that is not a member of the ILO. As an internationally recognized organization, however, the ILO may be used as a standard for defining basic labor rights regardless of the country’s membership status. North Korean domestic legislation—the Socialist Labor Law (SLL), the Labor Protection Law (LPL), and the North Korean Constitution—does not appear to actively oppose standards provided by the ILO. For example, Article 70 of North Korea’s Constitution guarantees that workers will be “paid in accordance with the quantity and quality of their work.” Similarly, the LPL declares dedication to ensuring workers’ health and safety in Article 1, with Article 33 to 34 noting the need to provide safety equipment and suitable clothing for those in particular professions, such as logging and mining, “free of charge or at a fee.”
Yet, the existence of these North Koreans working abroad demonstrates how the word of the Kim family overshadows North Korean law. As foreign currency is needed in order to maintain Kim Jong-un’s Royal Economy and the practice of giftpolitik, North Koreans are continually undergoing forced labor to uphold the North Korean regime, despite the cost to their basic human rights. Article 56 of the Socialist Labor Law states that the government holds a responsibility “to provide conditions for a safe workplace.”  Vice’s investigation of North Korean worker Chon Kyong-Su most distinctively demonstrates how North Korea is actively selling the free labor of their citizens for profit, regardless of their domestic legislation. While welding pipes in a Polish shipyard in 2014, Chon’s highly flammable clothing, which had been provided for him by the Polish company Armex, caught fire. Though Chon managed to escape from the tank in which he was working, he died of his injuries a day later with 95% of his body burned. Like his co-workers, Chon had been working seventy-hour weeks, far exceeding the maximum permitted hours. He died in a foreign country, away from a family he had been unable to contact, due to the willingness of a negligent European country to employ cheap labor.
It is natural then to question how North Korea has been permitted to consistently violate international law within the EU in order to generate revenue to prop up the Kim regime. The European Commission states that it is committed to “promot[ing] social progress and improv[ing] the living and working conditions of the peoples of Europe.”  Yet, the use of slave labor in countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic contradicts this. Vice presented evidence that the European Commission said it was ignorant of any form of “modern slavery” within the EU in May 2016. However, since June 29, 2016, the Commission now states that it is “aware of reports on alleged violations of the human rights of citizens of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) working abroad” and that countries employing North Koreans must take action against forced labor. Excuses of providing the chance to teach about democracy and lies about pay distribution have enabled companies to continue their access to the North Korean workforce thus far. Through secret cameras, Cecylia Kowalska, head of Polish company Armex, was filmed declaring that “In our company, everyone receives their money in person, and gets to keep it, too.”  Cyril Svoboda, minister of Foreign Affairs for the Czech Republic until 2006, reportedly stated that he personally believed “that these women can learn some democratic
rules and use them after they get back to North Korea” through working in Europe.”
However, the change in position of the European Commission since the release of Vice’s documentary highlights the importance of spreading knowledge regarding North Korean forced labor. Despite issuing 156 work visas and 482 work permits in 2015, Poland recently announced that it would stop employing North Koreans as a consequence of North Korea’s nuclear testing in January and February 2016. The Czech shoe company SAM also decided to end their employment of North Koreans after receiving negative reactions from its Western European customers. Although these decisions by the Polish and the Czech appeared to be somewhat reluctant—a result of deciding to abide by UN sanctions rather than opposing a totalitarian system—Malta’s recent decision to deny visa extensions to North Koreans working within the country seems to be more promising. Increased media attention within South Korea and Malta itself led the government in Malta to end their contracts in response to human rights concerns.23
In order to cease North Korea’s exploitation of its citizens, not just within the EU, but also globally, international pressure can be seen as a prerequisite. Through media outlets such as Vice, and an increase in interest and knowledge regarding North Korean labor amongst the public, ILO countries may be further pressured to comply with labor standards. Both the living standards of North Korean workers abroad and how the money generated is used within North Korea must be emphasized. With domestic pressure, member states of the ILO may feel more obligated to follow the standards presented by the ILO and end their support for modern forced labor.
 Larkin, Michael, Interview: Behind North Korea’s Use of 'Slave Labor' Greg Scarlatoiu on North Korea’s use of forced labor to sustain the regime. The Diplomat. 2015. Accessed 07/22/2016:
 Saeme, Kim, and Burt, James . The Will of the State: North Korean Forced Labour, 35. 2015. Accessed 07/22/2016:
 North Korea’s Forced Labor Enterprise: A State-Sponsored Marketplace in Human Trafficking. Hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, 3, 2015. ( Statement of Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea) Accessed 08/08/2016:
 Vice. Cash for Kim: North Korean Forced Labourers in Poland. 2016. Accessed 07/22/2016:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SPjKs8NuY4s
 Boonen et all. North Korean Forced Labour in the EU: How the Supply of a Captive DPRK Workforce Fits Our Demand for Cheap Labor. Slaves to the System Project, Leiden Asia Centre, 5. 2016.
 Ryall, Julian. Polish firms employing North Korean 'slave labourers' benefit from EU aid. The Telegraph. 2016. Accessed 07/22/2016:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/31/polish-firms-employing-north-korean-slave-labourers-benefit-from/.
 Hulpachová, Markéta. Working overtime: North Korean migrants labour in Czech factories after visas expired The Prague Post. 2008. Accessed 07/22/2016:
 Vice, op. cit.
 Jelínková, Marie.The North Koreans in the Czech Republic: The Silent Workers. Migration Online: Focus on Central and Eastern Europe, Multicultural Center Prague, 1. 2006. Accessed 07/22/2016:
 Human Rights Watch. North Korea: Workers’ Rights at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. 2006, 3.
 International Labor Organization. Alphabetical list of ILO member countries (187 countries). 2016. Accessed 07/22/2016:
 International Labor Organization.. International Labour Standards on Working time. 2016. Accessed 08/03/2016:
 Löwisch, Mafred. Labour Law in Europe: International Labour Law (Conflict of Laws) Ritsumeikan Law Review, no.20, 2003. 114. Accessed 07/22/2016:
 Kim and Burt, op.cit.
 Jaroslawska, Kalina. How much time a week do you work in Poland? Polish Labor Law Blog. 2012. Accessed 07/22/2016:
 Czech Invest, Labor Regulation. 2016. Accessed 07/22/2016:
 Eurofound. Working time in the European Union: Malta. European Observatory of Working Life. 2009. Accessed 08/03/2016:
 DPRK’S Socialist Constitution, Chapter 5 Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens. The People’s Korea, 1998, 18. Accessed 08/03/2016:
 Kim and Burt, op. cit.
 Kim, Kwang-Jin. Gulag, Inc: The Use of Forced Labor in North Korea’s Export Industries. The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Translated by Raymond Ha. 2016, 41.
 Vice, op. cit.
 European Commission. Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion: Laws. Accessed 07/22/2016:
 European Parliament, Parliamentary questions. 2016. Accessed 07/22/2016
 Vice, op.cit.
 Jelínková, op.cit.
 Shim, Elizabeth. Poland banned North Korea workers after provocations, Warsaw says UPI 2016. Accessed 07/22/2016:
 Jelínková, op. cit., 4.
23 Ware, Doug G. Malta denied work visas to North Koreans as human rights advocates push for change. UPI 2016. Accessed /07/29/2016:
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul in May 2020, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.