Eastern European Countries Lauded for Ceasing Import of Laborers from North Korea over Regime Extortion

North Koreans rest at the Central Zoo in Pyongyang, North Korea, 16 April 2017 (issued 17 April 2017). Photo: How Hwee Young/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

  • Three countries from Eastern Europe – Bulgaria, Czechia, and Romania – have earned praise for suspending labor imports from North Korea.
  • Suspension has been motivated by reports that the North Korean regime extorts the earnings of its citizens overseas, and by the laborers’ harsh conditions.
  • Cash-strapped North Korean regime is believed to be extracting about USD 100 million per year from tens of thousands of laborers working abroad.
  • North Korean university is sending students to Russia and China to gain advanced knowledge in science, technology, economics and other fields.
  • Study abroad campaign may be part of a plan for modest reforms in the economy of the North Korean regime.

Three Eastern European countries which are members of the European Union – Bulgaria, Czechia, and Romania – have been praised by a human rights advocacy group for suspending import of workers from North Korea over the North Korean regime’s extortion of money from its laborers abroad.

On Tuesday, the regime of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un alleged that its latest ballistic missile firing has been a successful test of a precision-guided system.

On Monday, North Korea performed its 10th ballistic missile firing since since Donald Trump became President of the United States, with seven successful and three failed tests. For the past three weeks, it has been firing a ballistic missile each week.

Ongoing activity and a large number of people have been spotted at North Korea’s nuclear test site, the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, amid lingering concerns that the regime of leader Kim Jong-un could carry out its sixth nuclear test.

Over the recent months, in addition to its ballistic missile tests, the North Korean regime has committed other acts widely deemed as international provocations – ranging from the assassination with a chemical weapon of Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur in February, to the arrests of Korean-American college professors from the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), and a war of words with Chinese state media.

‘Example’ of Anti-Extortion Measures

EU member states Bulgaria, Czechia, and Romania suspended imports of workers from North Korea amid criticism that Pyongyang is extorting money earned by its workers overseas, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported, citing a report by the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, a NGO.

“Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Romania set a precedent by ceasing their labor imports after realizing the conditions of North Korean overseas laborers,” the Seoul-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights said.

“The suspension of receiving North Korean laborers by these three East European countries is an example of states actively taking measures against the extortion of the laborers’ remuneration,” it added.

The NGO’s report was presented jointly with the Netherlands’ Leiden University at a conference on North Korea’s labor exports held in The Hague earlier in May 2017.

It pointed out that North Korea’s labor exports are regarded as a major source of foreign currency for the country but frequently criticized as modern slavery due to harsh working conditions and extortion of money by the cash-strapped regime.

About 50,000-60,000 North Koreans are believed to be toiling overseas, mainly in the mining, logging, textile and construction industries.

North Korea reportedly receives more than USD 100 million from the overseas labor of its citizens every year.

Sending Students to Russia and China

In another development on North Korea, an observer said on Tuesday that a North Korean university was sending its students abroad in large numbers to gain advanced knowledge in science, technology, economics and other fields.

Ahn Chan-il, the head of the Seoul-based World North Korea Research Center, said, as cited by Yonhap, that Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), North Korea’s only privately funded university, is hastening its efforts to dispatch its students to study in Russia and China, among others.

Citing a PUST official, Ahn told the Yonhap News Agency that the Pyongyang university’s co-president, Park Sang-ik, recently visited leading science and technology universities in Russia and other countries in a bid to help his students study there.

“If North Korea is successful with its sixth nuclear test and ICBM launches, leader Kim Jong-un may need to change the path of his country. If so, the North will be in need of more economic experts as well as scientists and engineers,” the school official was quoted as telling Ahn.

“China sent its talented students to the United States, Britain and other Western countries after declaring an open door policy in 1978. Lacking such confidence, North Korea plans to send its students to Russia and China to push for limited economic reform,” the official said.

In this regard, Ahn said North Korea may seek economic reform within the boundaries of socialism, as its remaining goal is to build up its economy after celebrating its repeated nuclear and missile tests.

PUST was established jointly by South Korea’s Northeast Asia Foundation for Education & Culture and North Korea’s education ministry in 2010. The school is co-headed by Park, appointed by the North, and a Korean-American scholar appointed by the South.

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