North Korean Forced Labor Migration 1
A world map, with the Korea peninsula marked in red, is seen as a hotel receptionist talks on the phone in Rason city, northeast of Pyongyang, August 29, 2011. 
Carlos Barria / Reuters

When it comes to North Korea, nothing is beyond the pale. The hermit kingdom is known for summary executions, abducting foreign citizens, and for hacking entertainment giant Sony. According to new research, Pyongyang is also trafficking its citizens, selling their labor in exchange for foreign currency. In a compelling report by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, researchers Yoon Yeo-sang and Lee Seung-ju describe interviews with 20 North Koreans who were sent to foreign countries to earn money for their families, only for it to end up in the regime’s coffers. Trading in domestic positions that pay pennies for only slightly less-meager salaries abroad, these workers have generated between $1.2–$2.3 billion a year for the government. Even better for the regime, the payments are in hard cash, a dear commodity for a nation living under years of sanctions.

Meanwhile, the workers take nightmarish jobs in restaurants and massage parlors in China, weld on construction sites in an undisclosed Eastern European state, or on construction sites while living in miserable conditions in the Middle East with few—if any—human rights provisions.

North Korean Forced Labor Migration 2
North Korean men look up as they work along the banks of the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, September 8, 2014.
Jacky Chen / Reuters


Researching human trafficking presents numerous challenges. Researching trafficking from the most closed country in the world is especially challenging. Visitors to Mongolia might notice North Korean laborers working on construction sites. Or travelers to Russia’s remote Far East riding along roads that once led to the Gulag might come upon trafficked North Koreans working in the forests in place of Stalin’s slave laborers, an arrangement that apparently dates back to the 1950s. 

On occasion, however, brave survivors do come forward. At a recent meeting hosted by the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, D.C. to showcase Yoon and Lee’s findings, a North Korean defector gave his story. Identifying himself as a migrant worker in a Middle Eastern country, he described working in exchange for the provision of hard currency to North Korean leadership. Laborers spend months being vetted by North Korean security services to weed out potential defectors. Health and loyalty tests are required. If passed, laborers head to the Middle East. If one had health problems, they would end up in Russia for reasons not explained.

Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj stands with Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the North Korean Supreme People's Assembly, as representatives from both countries shake hands after signing a treaty of cooperation in Pyongyang in this picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) October 28, 2013.
KCNA / Reuters
Yoon and Lee report that anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 North Korean laborers are sent to 40 countries. Their report never used the term “trafficking.” Instead, it suggests that North Korea’s activity provides an important, under-researched case in which the state takes advantage of citizens’ intense desire to leave North Korea and make more money for their families. Laborers voluntarily seek out the potential to earn two dollars a day instead of 25 cents, but end up in worse situations without their consent. In these cases, a person’s willingness to travel abroad in the first place becomes immaterial, just as it does for young Russian women who travel to a foreign country with the promise of a waitressing job, only to be forced into prostitution in Bosnia by a human trafficker. The same can be said for a Nepalese laborer who believes he is going to work in Kuwait, but ends up in Iraq with his passport confiscated.

In the North Korean case, the government minders apparently use force, fraud, deception, and coercion to exploit laborers once they’ve reached their destination, which, in many cases, is not the country to which they believed they were being sent.


Most experts that focus on North Korea’s nuclear program pay little attention to its human rights abuses. And those who do focus on Pyongyang’s treatment of its subjects generally know little about human trafficking. On the other side of the divide, researchers and activists studying human trafficking rarely target North Korea, given how difficult the nation is to access, let alone influence. Anti-trafficking experts need to work with experts on North Korea to assess what other countries and campaigns might be important targets to end this exploitation: Russia and China are believed to have the largest numbers of North Koreans, as many as 19,000 each, with significant populations also in Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Mongolia, and Qatar. Here, they can look to the Freedom Fund’s success combatting child labor in India as an example, or the International Justice Mission’s campaign targeting Thailand’s fishing industry, which was found to be rife with forced labor.

Among these important campaigns, the anti-trafficking community is increasing pressure on Qatar for its alleged use of forced labor to build the stadiums that will house the 2022 World Cup. These efforts should also include the 2,800 North Korean citizens in Qatar whose wages and passports are confiscated, and the persistent threat of violence against family members as punishment for defection. Given the recent arrests of FIFA officials, FIFA and the Qatari government ought to work with anti-trafficking experts to make sure labor practices are not criminal.

Finally, addressing North Korean human trafficking effectively means conducting more research into gaps within international sanctions. The international community has, on the one hand, a robust sanctions regime in place against North Korea due to its nuclear weapons program. And yet the North Korean government is still able to sign agreements with numerous governments to receive cash for its citizens’ labor. This loophole for exploitation needs to be thoroughly exposed and ultimately closed, likely by a mix of public pressure on governments, and prosecutions for the crime of abetting human trafficking. Failure to do so only enables the hermit kingdom to outsource its oppression beyond national borders, making many others complicit.

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  • SARAH E. MENDELSON is Senior Adviser and Co-Director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2010 to 2014, she served as Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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