North Korea’s nuclear threat

New campaign to curb North's labour exports

North Koreans line up outside the customs office in China's Dandong, Liaoning province on Sept 12, 2016.
North Koreans line up outside the customs office in China's Dandong, Liaoning province on Sept 12, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL • As the international community looks for new ways to punish North Korea for its latest nuclear test, one area is emerging as the next front to apply pressure: North Korea's practice of sending workers overseas to earn money for the regime.

The United States and South Korea had already started quietly trying to persuade host countries to stop allowing in North Korean guest workers, according to people who work in both governments. That drive is likely to accelerate now that North Korea has shown that new sanctions imposed this year have failed to dissuade it from pursuing nuclear weapons.

"There is going to be a global shaming campaign," said Mr Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea at Kookmin University in Seoul, citing conversations with officials.

In the five years since Mr Kim Jong Un took over, North Korea has dramatically stepped up the number of people it sends abroad to earn hard currency.

At least 50,000 North Koreans - and by some estimates, double that - are working in more than two dozen foreign countries. The vast majority, about 80 per cent, are in China and Russia, toiling in garment factories and on construction sites, or felling trees in Siberian forests.

There have also been numerous reports of North Korean doctors working in Cambodia and Libya, sculptors building statues in Senegal and Namibia, and labourers on building sites in Mongolia and in the football stadiums of Qatar.

The North Koreans are usually sent abroad for three years, and are still controlled tightly outside the totalitarian country. While overseas, they are allowed to keep one-third of their earnings - or US$100 (S$136) out of their monthly US$300 salary for the seamstresses in China - and the rest goes to the regime.

The Seoul-based Database Centre for North Korean Human Rights estimates that the Kim regime now earns US$300 million a year this way - a considerable amount for the country. Its exports to China, by far its largest trading partner, totalled US$227 million last year, according to South Korea's International Trade Association.

The new campaign has already paid some dividends.

Malta, the smallest country in the European Union, in July effectively expelled some 20 labourers who had been working on construction sites and in garment factories by declining to extend their work permits.

Poland stopped issuing visas for North Korean workers following a nuclear test in January, the Voice of America radio station reported in June, quoting a Polish Foreign Ministry official.

Poland had granted visas for 156 North Koreans last year, mainly to work in its shipyards.

Analysts are divided on the merits of clamping down on North Korea's labour exports.

"I believe that the more that North Koreans experience working overseas, the higher the chance of North Korea changing," said Professor Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'New campaign to curb North's labour exports'. Print Edition | Subscribe