12.07.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

North Korea and “Human Trafficking”


On July 1, 2021, the US State Department accused Russia of being “actively complicit” in the forced exploitation of North Korean workers and included it in a list of 11 countries where authorities violate the accepted anti-trafficking norms. It was alleged that in 2020 the Russian Federation issued almost 3,000 new tourist and student visas to North Koreans in 2020. The United States sees this as an attempt to circumvent the sanctions: “The (Russian) government was actively complicit in the forced labor of North Korean workers. The government did not screen North Korean workers for trafficking indicators or identify any North Korean trafficking victims, despite credible reports in previous years that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) operated work camps in Russia and exploited thousands of North Korean workers in forced labor.” And further: “Although the government took steps to repatriate North Korean workers in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions (UNSCRs), citizens from the DPRK continued to arrive throughout the year, many of whom likely engaged in informal labor.”

Let us recall that in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2397, all UN member states were obliged to send all North Korean workers to their homeland by December 22, 2019.

The DPRK has already been included for the 19th time in a row in this list of 11 countries “with a documented ‘policy or pattern’ of human trafficking, trafficking in government-funded programs, forced labor in government-affiliated medical services or other sectors, sexual slavery in government camps, or the employment or recruitment of child soldiers.” The report argues that women and children in North Korea are frequently sexually exploited, while forced labor remains part of the “established system of political repression and a pillar of the economic system.”

In addition, the list includes Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, South Sudan, Syria and Turkmenistan. And, suddenly, it is noted that most of these countries, as well as in Kenya, Malaysia and Thailand, “also harbored North Korean workers forced into free labor by the North Korean government.”

China was also included, which “failed to undertake efforts to identify trafficking victims from … highly vulnerable North Korean migrant population.” In addition, the State Department expressed concern “about defectors or other North Korean nationals being returned to North Korea and the risk that they face to forced labor, other forms of trafficking and other human rights abuses.”

Russia has been accused of pandering to North Korean workers in the past. So, in August 2018, the Wall Street Journal wrote that Russia continues to issue work permits, despite the bans, but the Russian Ambassador to the DPRK, Alexander Matsegora, explained that only those North Koreans who managed to conclude contracts before the tightening of sanctions received the documents.

The BBC cited the story of how the Russian migration service found students from the DPRK installing fittings at a construction site. But the students said they were doing internships and that it was in line with the curriculum, and there was no evidence that they were getting paid for the work.  Moreover, from August 5, 2020, foreign students in Russia are able to officially earn money in their free time, and this does not require a special permit.  But the same BBC honestly declares that according to the border service of the FSB of Russia, the number of working trips has reduced to zero although North Koreans have begun to come to Russia more often for private, tourist and educational purposes. The only attempt to bring North Korean workers to Russia by first sending them to study, was in 2018. Everything else is in the field of speculation, but not proven facts.

As for the remaining citizens, on March 31, 2020, Moscow itself notified the UN that despite the expiration of their work permits, 511 North Korean workers remained in Russia as of March 10, as Pyongyang closed its borders in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It was noted that the workers remaining in the country does not violate the UN resolution, since their work permits have already been invalidated.

It is well known that the previously North Korean restaurants are open, but have changed owners. For example, a North Korean restaurant “Koryo” reopened in Moscow, which was closed in December last year as part of UN sanctions. The menu and design of the restaurant remained the same, but the subtitle “Pyongyang restaurant” disappeared from the signboard, and the North Korean employees were replaced by immigrants from Kyrgyzstan. The restaurant is operated by a private company which registered with the Russian tax authorities on December 30, 2019.

Nevertheless, in 2020, the United States imposed sanctions against two Russian companies, which, according to the Americans, were engaged in the employment of workers from the DPRK in the Russian Federation. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova, in response, stressed that Washington does not support its accusations with any evidence.

According to the author, the accusations of the US State Department are far-fetched. To accuse the North of forced human trafficking on the basis that refugees from the DPRK end up in the hands of Chinese traffickers is, to put it mildly, incorrect. If corrupt border guards can be involved in refugees crossing the border, then they have nothing to do with the further fate of these persons. Human trafficking and the sale of refugees into slavery are carried out either by Chinese criminal groups that catch illegal immigrants in China, or the so-called brokers, who formally ensure the “evacuation of people from North Korea”, but in fact are engaged in human trafficking.

According to the author, although formally these organizations are supposed to provide “flight to freedom”, only a quarter of those who can pay make it to South Korea. Most of the refugees (usually women) end up either in slavery in China or in brothels in Southeast Asia. The problem is that a significant part of these organizations are human rights centers or Protestant sects that do a “noble cause”, and the State Department is not going to make claims against them, while pseudo-human rights defenders like Ko Hyon-chol who received orders to export female orphans from the DPRK, are considered prisoners of conscience in the United States.

The assertion about “North Korean slaves” on the territory of the Russian Federation also needs at least additional proof. More is required than simply allegations that North Koreans who come to Russia on tourist or student visas “probably” are on short-term work shifts. The speculations about the slave conditions in which the North Korean workers allegedly find themselves are also a lie. The fact is that the Russian security forces and the Federal Migration Service “like” to fine businessmen for the presence of illegal migrants, especially when they live “in appropriate conditions”. The risk of facing the FMS is quite high for the average Russian businessman, and it is much easier for him to provide the North Koreans, as well as other workers, with decent starting conditions.

How can all this be explained? Firstly, if the Republicans, scourging the DPRK, traditionally emphasized the nuclear missile threat, Democrats are more involved in the discourse of human rights and everything connected with it. The themes of human trafficking and the fight against it are perfectly used both for the American audience and in the global community, which will neither particularly understand nor question the results of “investigations”. Secondly, against the background of the confrontation of the United States with China and Russia, North Korean workers are not so much a reason but an additional pretext to reproach Moscow and Beijing for “complicity with a deliberately tyrannical regime and involvement in criminal activities.”

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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