Mr. Trump: Kim Jong Un’s Migrant Labor Empire Can’t Persist

KCNA/via Reuters

Michael McGrady Director of McGrady Policy Research
Font Size:

People commonly associate the current diplomatic crisis with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) with bombastic rhetoric and the fear of impending nuclear war. In particular, you’d associate U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a pair of bickering children in the schoolyard. But, they have nukes and millions of soldiers at their disposal in their geopolitical tug of war.

Besides the apparent assessments we see in the news media, the entire North Korean crisis is seemingly far-reaching into every component of international concern. To note, the North has a global network of state-sponsored migrant laborers who virtually work as slaves in dozens of countries.

Granted, the latest sanctions from the United Nations have stymied this practice; however, remnants of concern can merit an assessment that such a practice isn’t entirely abolished. Like with every other component of Kim Jong-un’s ambitions to elevate the so-called DPRK to global power, he will find a way to ‘make it work.’

We need to also keep in mind that the Kim regime’s intentions are still scattered as pundits, national leaders, and the layperson clamor to comprehend an ever-changing, multifaceted issue like this.

To begin, Trump needs to address the forced migrant slave labor crisis at the get-go of any potential negotiations moving forward. Kim has signaled his interest in negotiating with the U.S. federal government over denuclearization efforts; however, the elephants in the room are evident. With this, one measurable question is how can the international community approach a massive body of documented human rights violations–which include the slave labor practices–perpetrated by the North Korean government?

Before the potential answers to this immediate question are addressed, most people fail to realize the scale of the DPRK’s illicit flow of human capital. Transnational corporations from countries like China, Russia, Qatar, and Poland, to name a few, are on record for employing North Korean laborers. On the surface, this seems harmless from within the DPRK’s borders. North Korean citizens are given the opportunity to make a living overseas for a few years, earn money to send back home, and return better off and with much more considerable favor in the eyes of the despotic government. I can’t think of any other way a lay North Korean citizen could honor their Great Leader in such an ambitious fashion, theoretically speaking.

But, what happens is that these individuals–who go overseas to work in a number of physically-demanding fields, like construction, logging, agriculture, masonry, and food service–become victims of their government’s hidden agenda.

For example, Vice News ran an excellent exposé and documentary on Kim Jong-un’s laborers in Poland a few years ago. The documentary, entitled “Cash for Kim: North Korean Forced Laborers in Poland,” documented the working conditions, in which, the laborers were subjected to by their in-country host: a network of Polish-North Korean owned shell corporations.

In this immediate case, it’s revealed that the North Korean laborers are subjected to unsafe work conditions, long work hours with little respite, and are restricted from free movement. Agents for the DPRK government accompany these labor groups as minders to regulate the freedoms of these laborers. To make matters worst, pay for these workers was controlled by the DPRK government’s on-site minders.

The laborers are then told that their paychecks are awaiting them back home for when they return; however, this also isn’t true (obviously). To fund specific activities, like Kim’s heavily-sanctioned nuclear weapons development program, the majority of these workers’ paychecks are siphoned back to the central government. As a result, these workers receive only a dismal portion, or even nothing, for the 3 to 5-year work commitments they provide to the regime.

Upon external analysis, including insights from the documentary, these practices not only violate existing United Nations and U.S. Treasury sanctions but go as far as to break international and domestic migrant workers rights. In particular, the International Labour Organization, among the General Assembly and the other primary organs within the United Nations, have all condemned these practices.

Nevertheless, the historical documentation of the DPRK government sending its citizens abroad proves one thing: it’s going to persist despite any pushback from the international community.

And, here’s why. Economic sanctions have limited the North Korean government’s various flows of legitimate and illicit foreign hard currencies. Though the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously imposed the latest international challenge to this practice through the form of Res. 2397, the actual flow of documented and undocumented North Korean workers, though decreased, remains unresolved.

For a case of pure irony, the People’s Republic of China reportedly authorized the return of North Korean-sourced workers, primarily women, to various factories along the border. Radio Free Asia sources announced their findings after weeks of little-to-no developments, aside from Russia and Mongolia (both states notorious for employing North Korean workers), with others, declaring that they’ve expelled all appropriate DPRK personnel in compliance with Res. 2397, for example.

Aside from the semantics, North Korea has a hard currency crisis brewing within the nation’s coffers. Kim’s government is hemorrhaging money to finance their various ‘projects;’ however, their deficits with China remain unsettled. I rarely speculate in work like this; yet, a hypothesis surrounding the return of North Korean workers to China–a permanent member of the Res. 2397-passing UNSC–could be tied to existing financial turmoil for the Kim regime. In the end, that’s an entirely different issue.

As a non-interventionist libertarian-type, I also rarely take a stance on issues that involve outright intervention. Obviously, a far-right hawkish approach to forcing North Korea’s human rights compliance wouldn’t be merited; however, the question of this entire essay necessitates some out-of-the-box thinking.

Before, I opined that Trump needs to bring human rights issues, including forced migrant labor, as a packaged point of contention in the coming negotiations. To do such a thing, Trump needs to ‘de-Bolton-ize’ himself so that future rounds of discussion aren’t ended with negative brevity.

Already, more qualified observers than myself speculate that the DPRK’s human rights record won’t be addressed during initial talks in the coming weeks. Sadly, I agree with this observation. Gaining trust, or the lack thereof, among the North Korean and American governments, is essential. My take is that North Korea will pivot to ease off sanctions so that they can recover lost hard currency and de-stress the national economy. This approach, I can agree with during the interim. However, it’s impossible to tell where negotiations will lead given the fraught nature of both negotiating parties.

Thousands of North Korean laborers, in the meantime, are still abused by their own government–at home and abroad. At this point, it isn’t prudent to play political two-step when people continue to be abused. We can’t “storm the beaches” with our military. Sanctions prove little worth. Talking is a flat approach. What’s the solution?

I submit that question to president Trump, his team, world leaders, and you–the reader.

Michael McGrady is the executive director of McGrady Policy Research and an internationally published libertarian journalist.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

Tags : north korea
Michael McGrady