Forced Labor: North Koreans Working Abroad
Is it forced labor? Have Russia and the Czech Republic imported a small piece of an oppressive regime onto their own soil?
It began in the 1970's, with the ill fated Baikul-Amur Railroad, an attempt by the Soviet government to build a railway across Siberia. North Korea contributed to the project by sending prisoners to labor camps in Siberia that would assist in the construction of the railway.
The railroad was never finished but decades later North Korean laborers are still hard at work in the dense Siberian forests mostly as loggers, though technically no longer prisoners. Though their wages are low, their days long, and their off days few, the North Koreans bearing these extreme conditions actually choose to be there. In fact, many had to bribe officials for the opportunity.
Occasionally, the gate opens to allow laborers through, usually in groups of three. Walking along the road, they look bedraggled and weather beaten, and they're forbidden to speak to anyone. One worker, who speaks fairly good Russian, says he doesn't want to talk because he doesn't understand the language.
Local residents say the workers keep to themselves.
"When we come across them in the forest, they're afraid of us. We used to feel sorry for them looking very poor, dressed in their black work clothes," says Tynda resident Liudmilla Alexandrovna. "But now we're used to them. After all, their lives here are far better than in North Korea."
Some camps are reported to have little by way of sanitation and are often subject to food shortages. Laborers are reported to be mistreated by the North Korean officials assigned to keep constant watch over them. The conditions are harsh as is the work itself, especially without the limited equipment and extreme temperatures of the Siberian wilderness.
In spite of this there is no shortage of North Korean men vying for a chance to work in the camps. The pay and conditions are said to be many times better than what they can find at home.
Not all North Koreans laborers are content with the arrangement. Kim Man-soo tolerated five years of back breaking labor in the mid-to-late 90's only to discover all of his wages had been sent to the North Korean government. He later defected.
"I worked 15 hours a day for five years. In July 1998, I counted the vouchers I had been given instead of money. They were worth US$3,000. That was my goal. I risked my life earning that money. I was excited about bringing the money home, but when I told the logging office to pay me, they said they had no money." The logging office had sent all the cash it received from Russia to the North. That was the last straw: Kim escaped in January 1999.
But it isn't only North Korean men competing for a chance to work in virtual slave labor abroad, nor is Russia the only destination. Over 400 North Korean women have found jobs in the Czech Republic. Most work as seamstresses sewing together leather headrests and arm rests for luxury cars including BMWs, Mercedes, and Renaults.
Though the women are considered well treated by comparison to their Siberian counterparts, their situation has raised the concerns of those in the Czech Republic and around Europe. The biggest brow-raiser is that 80% of their wages are deposited into a group account which they believe is then taken by the North Korean government, rather than returned to the women's families.
Employing North Koreans, it seems, is not so much a means of offering an oppressed people a better life, as it is funding a tyranical and oppressive communist regime, and possibly allowing a forced labor program within the bounds of a democratic country. Because of these concerns and at the request of organizations combating human trafficking, the Czech Republic has stopped issuing new visas to North Koreans.
"What we want," she added, is to ensure "that they get paid appropriately and that they can do what they want outside work hours."
Investigators have been unable to ascertain the extent of the North Koreans' personal freedoms, like speech and movement, Svec said.
In Nachod, the North Korean workers socialize with their foreign co-workers at the Snezka factory. They speak Czech and talk about work, but never socialize after work hours, colleagues said, and they are watched over by a translator who most often answers for them.
Without having the freedom to speak, "that means that they don't have any freedom at all on the ground of a democratic country," said Willy Fautre, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers. "This is just more evidence that the women are hostages of North Korean officials."
Whether or not the North Koreans' working conditions qualifies as forced labor is unclear given their apparent desire to do the work regardless of very low wages and under what by western standards are oppressive conditions. However the historical symmetry of this situation should not escape our notice: a country run by an ex-KGB officer importing communist labor camps onto its soil and a company known to have benefitted from forced labor in the past, BMW, seemingly taking advantage of it again, pokes at our subconscious, and subtly raises the question: could history be repeating itself in some way?