North Korean Workers Earn Millions for their Government Overseas

While people are paying attention to North Korea’s nuclear program, most don’t know that it is funded using forced labor. Earlier this month the Associated Press reported on the thousands of North Korean workers who are sent to other countries to work. It is estimated that about 65,000 North Koreans work in 40 countries across eastern Europe and Asia, earning an estimated $200 to $500 million per year for the North Korean government through remittances collected from their overseas workforce.

North Korean workers have two options: work in hard labor within their country of origin or work in hard labor abroad. Given that calculation, workers have long sought the sense of freedom that comes from being outside of the isolated and authoritarian nation. However, once they leave North Korea, the conditions they face abroad are still restrictive.

Workers cannot leave their living quarters without permission and have little privacy. Constantly watched by a North Korean government overseer, they must travel in groups and are forbidden to interact with outsiders. They are not allowed to have contact with their families back home and are unable to return to North Korea until their contracts expire, usually after three to five years.

Workers are forced to work 10 to 12 hours a day, six and seven days a week, and rarely take breaks or days off for fear of repercussions. In addition to these conditions, workers are only paid a small fraction of their salaries. The rest of their income—upwards of 80 percent— is seized by the North Korean government as remittances.

The economically isolated government depends on remittance revenue to maintain power over its citizens and to continue investing in its nuclear weapons program. Some estimates suggest that its nuclear program costs more than $1 billion, likely funded heavily by overseas laborers.

This presents major problems for the international community. Sending workers overseas to earn money exploits a loophole in the sanctions laws that have been implemented to limit North Korea’s cash flow and deter its aggressive behavior.

When goods made by North Korean workers are imported to countries across the globe, the North Korean government profits. In the United States, for example, despite efforts to ban products made with North Korean labor, the Associated Press found products that were made by North Korean workers in factories in China. These imported products made with North Korean labor were then sold in popular grocery stores and retail chains in America. In this manner, consumers in the United States unknowingly supported the North Korean government.

To ensure that Americans no longer support the North Korean government by purchasing these goods, President Trump signed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in August, which bans American companies from importing products made by North Korean workers anywhere in the world. This law will push companies that import into the United States to investigate the use of North Korean labor in factories they contract with to avoid criminal penalties and fines. This will help dismantle the cash flow that the North Korean government is relying on to build a nuclear arsenal.

The United States bans not only products made by North Korean laborers, but all products produced with forced labor. The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, which was signed into law in February 2016, amended the Tariff Act to strengthen this ban. Since the ban went into effect, there were only four products banned from entry into the United States because they were produced with forced labor. Unfortunately, the estimated number of tainted products is much higher.

In light of this discovery, CBP should investigate shipments of goods coming into the United States from industries and countries known to use forced labor and in countries known to hire North Korean workers. This requires companies to investigate and audit their supply chains, ensuring that at no point, anywhere in the world, are their products being produced by forced labor. Companies hold the power to dismantle a major component of the North Korean economy, protecting U.S. consumers and people across the globe from supporting the government’s dangerous nuclear weapons program.


Published on October 31, 2017


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