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North Korean Workers Abroad Can’t Escape the Regime’s Human Rights Abuses

The world must expand its channels of communication with North Koreans working overseas to prevent human rights abuse.


By Lee Sang Yong

March 13, 2024


Credits @FFHR.CZ


In mid-November 2023, Daily NK posted a banner ad on our website that said, “We want to hear from North Koreans living overseas.” A number of North Korean workers who saw the  banner emailed us directly about the despicable behavior of a state security officer in Russia. Specifically, the officer was accused of demanding money from workers and taking away their cell phones, claiming they were watching South Korean news or dramas. 


After Daily NK released the article, however, the North Korean government response was disappointing: Instead of punishing the state security officer in question, the North Korean authorities sought to reassure him, and the incident was used as grounds to increase surveillance and oppression of workers in Russia. 


Officials proceeded to: (1) enact a curfew of 7 p.m.; (2) implement a strict ban on smartphones; (3) demand that any electronic devices be reported and handed over; and (4) increase monitoring of workers and their contact with other people. The authorities essentially intended to place North Koreans working overseas under the same controls as North Koreans at home.


The story is of great importance because it confirms once more how casually the North Korean authorities violate the basic rights and liberties, including the freedom of expression, of North Koreans working overseas. 


North Koreans who have defected to China or other countries say they have learned the truth about reality and gained a critical mindset by watching YouTube videos and frequently browsing websites about North Korea such as Daily NK and Radio Free Asia. Numerous North Koreans have also attempted to communicate with the outside world by maintaining two or more mobile phones. 


However, North Koreans working abroad have a harder time connecting with their host countries. It is very possible that the North Korean authorities will track these behaviors and institute harsher penalties, which could undermine these workers’ right to access information.


In fact, Daily NK recently reported that the North Korean Ministry of State Security has been cooperating with Russian intelligence organizations this year on issues related to North Korean workers in Russia. As North Korea and Russia improve ties, they are cooperating on a wider range of matters, such as preventing North Korean workers from defecting,  more closely than ever before.


In addition, North Korea and China already seem to have held in-depth discussions about repatriating defectors. Every few months there are reports about mass deportations of hundreds of North Koreans from China back to North Korea, where they likely face imprisonment or torture. There are also reports about China employing its counter-espionage law to prevent defectors in China from attempting to reach South Korea. 


In essence, North Koreans in China and Russia are exposed to political surveillance similar to that found inside their home country.


Given COVID-19’s endemic status and North Korea’s pursuit of the funds needed to develop nuclear weapons, there is a growing likelihood that large numbers of North Korean workers will be dispatched abroad – not only to China and Russia but also Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Considering that the international community’s sanctions against North Korea remain in place (in the form of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2375), the international community needs to closely monitor how many workers are being sent abroad and where they are headed. Other issues to monitor are how those workers are being exploited and whether they enjoy political and economic freedoms.


One notable development in regards to overseas North Korean labor was the death in January of a male North Korean official in his 50s at the hands of North Korean workers at a Chinese garment factory. When several workers complained to the official about their wages, a fight broke out, leading to the official’s death. With this case in mind, we should take note of the changing attitudes of North Koreans working overseas, who not only expressed their grievances but also took direct action. 


We should also watch carefully to see what steps the authorities will take to prevent workers’ ideological deviation. Those measures could have the knock-on effect of further degrading workers’ right to access information. 


Given these circumstances, the world needs to quickly uncover the human rights abuses that North Koreans working overseas have been suffering since COVID-19 entered the endemic phase. Shining a light on human rights abuses that occur outside of the public eye can serve as an opportunity both to console North Korean workers overseas, who are the victims in these abuses, and to constrain the activities of the perpetrators. 


It is time to fully investigate the conditions of these North Koreans overseas with a view toward developing a plan to improve their rights that can be implemented by the international community. The New Yorker’s recent investigation of conditions faced by North Korean workers in Chinese seafood factories is a good example of this. 


The world must also keep developing ways to strengthen communication with North Koreans overseas. The only way to protect their basic human rights is to find a way for them to share the injustice that they suffer. They need a way to send accurate information to the outside world – not only to raise awareness abroad, but also to provide outside confirmation for the victims that their freedoms and labor rights are indeed being violated by the North Korean government.


Just as international human rights organizations already run programs to bring information to people inside North Korea, various “freedom of information” programs should also be run for North Koreans who are currently overseas. Daily NK and other organizations with contacts in the North Korean overseas labor community can take the lead on these efforts. 


Importantly and more broadly, the world must voice criticism against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his regime, which does little to punish human rights offenders. The international community must reiterate that as long as the North Korean regime fails to condone officials who perpetrate human rights abuses against its own people, the country can never stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other members of the international community. 



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