The United Nations human rights investigator for North Korea plans to probe allegations that an estimated 20,000 North Koreans are working in slave-like conditions abroad, mainly in China, Russia and the Middle East.
Marzuki Darusman, UN special rapporteur on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, told Reuters that some of the North Korean workers are reported to be in Qatar helping build facilities for the 2022 World Cup.
NK Watch, a Seoul-based rights group, gave a much bigger estimate, saying more than 100,000 North Koreans are working in 40 countries and earning some US$3 billion annually in foreign currency for the Pyongyang government. It also called for an investigation into complicity by host countries.
Initial information indicated that the majority worked in China and Russia, Darusman said, reiterating his request to visit China to investigate.
A UN commission of inquiry, which included Darusman, issued a report a year ago that documented killings, torture and political prison camps that it said amounted to crimes against humanity being committed by North Korea’s government. Pyongyang denies the existence of the camps and any violations.
Darusman said he has received information about workers being “bonded laborers or slave laborers”, in terms of their poor remuneration and long working hours.
“A sizeable number are working in the Middle East also. These workers are being used to acquire foreign exchange, for example,” he added.
Ahn Myeong Chul, a former North Korean guard who defected and is now executive director of NK Watch, said most worked in forestry, construction and restaurants.
“The authorities are holding the families of North Korean workers so workers cannot escape the work site or complain about the conditions,” he told reporters.
North Korean diplomat Kim Yong-Ho, in a speech before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, again rejected the report as being based on false testimony and called for Darusman’s resignation.
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