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KEI Spotlight

North Korea's Overseas Laborers

May 20, 2015

May 12, 2015

Statement for the Record at the Korean Economic Institute of America’s Event: 
"Human Rights and North Korea's Overseas Laborers: Dilemmas and Policy Challenges”

Since the Second World War, Korea has been half free, and half enslaved. There is perhaps no starker contrast between two neighboring countries anywhere in the world.

The South has proved to be an outstanding example of the benefits free-market capitalism and trade. The people of South Korea have shown the wealth that people create when they are not saddled by excessive government intrusion into their lives. Rising from the abject poverty of just a half-century ago, South Korea is now a trillion-dollar economy, and the twelfth largest in the world. Theirs is a success story of which they should be proud, and proof that freedom is what allows people to fulfill their potential.

The North, on the other hand, is a wasteland, a totalitarian nightmare exceeding the worst imaginings of Kafka; it is perhaps the least free place on earth. According to the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, "[t]he gravity, scale and nature of [human rights] violations [in North Korea] reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."

One of the these violations is the use of forced labor. On April 29, the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights, which I co-Chair with Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts, heard testimony about the DPRK’s use of forced labor—slave labor—even in fulfilling contracts with other countries.

We heard from Mr. Robert King, the State Department’s Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, Mr. Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Mr. Lim Il, Co-Director of International Network for the Human Rights of North Korean Overseas Labor, and Mr. John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch. Their testimony was troubling. The facts are disturbing.

So-called “contract workers” are sent to countries in East Asia, Central Asia, Africa and Central Europe and forced to work while their movements are surveilled by government “minders.” Their salaries are deposited into accounts controlled by the North Korean government, which keeps most of the money, claiming various “voluntary” contributions to government endeavors.  Workers receive only a fraction of the money paid to the North Korean government for their work. Reportedly, there are some 50,000 “contract workers” in 16 countries.

It is an outrage, and an offense against the human dignity of the North Korean people. We need to draw attention to these abuses. I’m hopeful that our hearing, and that this important event, will bring attention to this problem, and make other countries think twice before doing business with North Korea.

In the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, individuals are born and subjugated by their government to crimes against humanity. In practice, virtually none of North Korea's residents or citizens can reasonably be assessed as free. Human rights violations by the DPRK are gross, widespread, systematic and continual.

Let us remember that, as Article I of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Efforts like this event are in that spirit of true brotherhood. I thank all of the participants, and I can assure you that the Lantos Commission will continue doing its part to ensure that the dignity of every human being is upheld.