By Hayley Noah, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor, and Benjamin Fu, HRNK Research Intern
July 7, 2020
North Korea is known to send workers abroad to earn foreign currency for the regime, with China and Russia the top two destinations for North Korean laborers. North Korea has a long history of sending workers abroad. For example, a high-level meeting between Russia and North Korea in 1950 suggests that North Korea had been supplying Russia with laborers since at least 1950. More recently, in 2017, North Korea and Russia signed a new labor immigration accord to increase the flow of North Korean workers to Russia. In terms of international security, this activity poses a serious risk, as, according to United Nations Security Resolution 2397, North Korean workers abroad work “for the purpose of generating foreign export earnings that [North Korea] uses to support its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” UN Security Council Resolution 2397 ordered the repatriation of North Korean workers abroad no later than December 22, 2019 in order to limit the Kim regime’s foreign currency funds.
In September 2019, North Korea released an order to repatriate all North Korean workers from China by December 21, one day ahead of the UN deadline. While some observers speculated that North Korea was cooperating in order to take pressure off of China, others were skeptical, arguing that the move was likely just for show. The skeptics appear to have been right. As of January 2020, it was estimated that over 100,000 North Koreans still work abroad, primarily in China and Russia. One reason for this supposed transgression relates to a loophole involving visas. The UN resolution prohibits North Koreans from working abroad under work visas, but allows other forms of visas. This loophole enables North Korean workers to go abroad under student or trainee visas, even though they still send remittances to the regime. North Korea previously used this tactic in 2018 to work around sanctions, sending workers to China under trainee visas for Chinese factories and restaurants, or using student visas as a cover.
In Russia, employers continue to seek North Korean workers, whom they consider “disciplined, law-abiding and inexpensive.” For their part, many North Koreans want to work abroad, believing it will lead to a better life for them and their families back home. Those who wish to go abroad have to undergo stringent background checks and meet physical requirements that the regime believes will reflect well on North Korea, and many pay bribes for the opportunity. However, those who go abroad experience little to no freedom. According to one study, North Korean workers in Russia oftentimes do not receive a work contract; do not have access to electricity or running water in employee housing; work for a minimum wage for 12-20 hour days— 30% of which is “given to the North Korean government, after which living and food expenses [are] also deducted from their income”; and do not have access to the financial assistance that is supposed to be provided by employers in the case of death or illness, as the North Korean government pockets these restitution funds. Additionally, although some North Koreans are exposed to information that counters disinformation from the regime and may motivate them to consider escape, these workers’ relatives back home are essentially held hostage to prevent defection. The 2017 United States State Department Trafficking in Persons Report comes to the same conclusion as the previously mentioned study regarding the conditions of North Korean laborers abroad. According to the report, “many North Koreans working under these contracts are subjected to conditions indicative of forced labor, such as working excessively long hours in hazardous temperatures with restricted pay for up to three years,” while they “face threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in [North Korea] if they attempt to escape or complain to outside parties,” among other human rights concerns.
The UN needs to take measures to implement Security Council Resolution 2397, for the sake of both international security and human rights. The aim to halt the employment of North Korean laborers abroad to earn money for the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs cannot be achieved while loopholes in Resolution 2397 allow North Koreans to enter countries under a different type of visa. Furthermore, as long as forced labor conditions exist for North Korean laborers abroad and the regime denies them basic freedoms, this system of migrant workers will remain a grave human rights injustice.
Hayley Noah is a second-year student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, pursuing an M.A. in Global Policy Studies. Her specialization is Security, Law, and Diplomacy.
 Britt C.H. Blom and Rosa Brandse, “Surveillance and Long Hours: North Korean Workers in Russia,” in People for Profit, ed. Remco E. Breuker and Imke B.C.H. Van Gardingen (LeidenAsiaCentre, 2018), 43-68, https://leidenasiacentre.nl/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/People-for-Profit-North-Korean-Forced-Labour-on-a-Global-Scale.pdf, 45.
 Elizabeth Shim, “Russia, North Korea sign ‘labor immigration’ accord,” UPI¸ March 27, 2017, https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/03/27/Russia-North-Korea-sign-labor-immigration-accord/4261490633465/?ur3=1.
 UN Security Council. “Resolution on the situation of human rights in the DPRK,” UN Doc. S/RES/2397. Nov. 14, 2014.
 Jang Seul Gi, “North Korea hands down recall order to all workers in China,” Daily NK, Sept. 24, 2019, https://www.dailynk.com/english/north-korea-orders-one-day-early-recall-all-workers-china/.
 Tae-jun Kang, “How North Korea Uses ‘Students’ and ‘Trainees’ Overseas to Bypass UN Sanctions,” The Diplomat, Jan. 4, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/how-north-korea-uses-students-and-trainees-overseas-to-bypass-un-sanctions/.
 Blom and Brandse, “Surveillance and Long Hours,” 47.
 Min Joo Kim and Simon Denyer, “A U.N. deadline is forcing North Korea’s global workers to go home. Some never will,” The Washington Post, Dec. 21, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/a-un-deadline-is-forcing-north-koreas-global-workers-to-go-home-some-never-will/2019/12/20/cf59ac04-1c14-11ea-977a-15a6710ed6da_story.html.
 Chan Hong Park, Conditions of Labor and Human Rights: North Korean Overseas Laborers in Russia (Seoul: NKDB, 2016) quoted in Blom and Brandse, “Surveillance and Long Hours,” 51.
 Kim and Denyer, “A U.N. deadline is forcing North Korea’s global workers to go home.”
 Blom and Brandse, “Surveillance and Long Hours,” (62).
 U.S. Department of State, “Trafficking in Persons Report,” June 2017, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/271339.pdf, 235.
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HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleagues Katty Chi and Miran Song.