Outsourcing Oppression

Trafficked Labor from North Korea

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

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