North Korea sends ‘slaves’ abroad to fund Kim Jong-un’s luxury lifestyle

February 24, 2015 12:19 am

Tens of thousands of impoverished North Koreans have been sent abroad
to work as “state-sponsored slaves” whose wages are confiscated and
used to buy luxury goods for the regime, human rights activists have
The practice, used since the 1980s to help fill the
communist state’s coffers, has reportedly accelerated under Kim Jong-un,
who took power following the death of Kim Jong-il, his father, in 2011.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Photo / AFP
2012 there were thought to be up to 65,000 North Korean workers around
the globe, often employed in terrible conditions. That number has since
risen to about 100,000, activists told The New York Times.
Myeong-chul, the head of NK Watch, a Seoul-based rights group, told the
newspaper that Pyongyang was “exploiting their labour and salaries to
fatten the private coffers of Kim Jong-un”. He said: “We suspect that
Kim is using some of the money to buy luxury goods for his elite
followers and finance the recent building boom in Pyongyang that he has
launched to show off his leadership.”

has been sending workers overseas for decades and
stepped up the practice during the 1990s as the country slipped into
economic chaos and famine. It now appears to be expanding again,
activists claim, partly as a result of heightened international
sanctions that mean the cash-strapped regime is looking for new sources
of revenue.
The wages of such workers, paid in foreign currency,
provide a stream of income that is seen as vital to keeping Mr Kim’s
Workers’ Party in power.
Accruing foreign currency became of
“paramount importance” in 2012 after he took control of a country with
“no economic stability”, the North Korea Strategy Centre, an activist
group, said in a report released that year.
Pyongyang’s growing
thirst for cash means thousands more North Koreans are being shipped
overseas, where, according to rights activists and former workers, their
experiences are often tantamount to slavery.
“There is no
contract, they say they will give us health insurance and heating access
but we never receive anything,” one North Korean worker in Russia was
quoted as saying in the North Korea Strategy Centre report. “In reality
we earn about 300 roubles [pounds 3.10] but they end up taking it all
The group named Russia as the biggest recipient of North
Korean labour, with at least 20,000 to 25,000 workers. There were an
estimated 15,000 workers in the Middle East and the same number in South
East . China and Africa had up to 8,000 each.
In China, many
North Koreans are sent to work gruelling hours in sweatshops where they
are watched over by security guards. In the Middle East, they are often
forced to toil in sweltering and potentially deadly temperatures on
building sites. When they are not at work they are kept completely
isolated from the country around them.
“The North Korean workers
are trapped in wired fences so we have never met any other Koreans,” a
male worker in Kuwait was quoted as saying.
Qatar has faced
particular criticism for its alleged exploitation of North Korean
workers as it embarks on a construction programme ahead of hosting the
2020 World Cup. There are about 2,800 North Koreans in the tiny Gulf
state, some of whom have reportedly been put to work building Lusail, a
skyscraper-packed city that is being created to host the World Cup final
and is known as Qatar’s “Future City”. Developers claim their
multi-billion-dollar project, which is being built from scratch outside
Doha, will be a “modern and ambitious society”.
However, activists said that the North Koreans involved in this project and others like it received almost nothing in exchange.

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