North Korean slaves

North Koreans at work. Photo by Roman Harak.
Robert Potter
Written by Robert Potter


If there is any single principle of relations with North Korea it’s that if you let them do something, they will keep doing it. That trend involves arms trading, nuclear proliferation, drug smuggling, and counterfeiting. In recent years the regime has found another source of income, slave labor.

There are an estimated 60-100,000 North Koreans working across 40 countries. Estimates place the earnings at around $150-230 USD per year. Condemning North Korea for using slaves might seem an easy task to develop international consensus over but the reality is much more complicated.

The North, for its part, has expanded these efforts over the past few years. The aim appears to be directed at developing new forms of revenue for the state’s finances. There is evidence however that international pressure has caused states to take action to stop this trend. There two reasons that emerge as to why it has managed to expanded these efforts. The first one more obvious than the second.

The initial comparison speaks to the reality that the states where the North has chosen to send its people are generally those with poor labor relations in the first place. The reality of cheap labor in many of these states means that the countries involved have developed a normative blind spot, ripe for Pyongyang to move in.

The second reason is more complex and perhaps even more difficult to surmount. Andrei Lankov, a highly respected North Korea analyst, argues that the North Korean workers are not slaves. Rather, he states that they make much more than their counterparts at home and that the positions are viewed as carrying prestige. Lankov’s argument strains credulity when, while discussing waitresses, he suggests:

“The job is well-paid and candidates are all volunteers selected from a large number of competitors; does it not sound a bit like elite military service? If so, can we describe U.S. Navy SEALS as victims of slave labor and human trafficking?”

What he is displaying here is the underlying comparative flaw that allows this sort of trade to exist. When compared to labor involving workers from Bangladesh, in Qatar the crime appears harder to identify as unique. However, the question remains, why would one of most senior commentators on North Korea feel compelled to engage in logical jujitsu in what appears to be a defense of the practice?

It is worth stating that Lankov is correct inasmuch as overseas laborers earn much more than their peers at home but slavery has always been a matter of agency, not one of earning power or prestige. A slave working in house may have held a more prestigious position than one in the field but it was hardly a mark of a free man.

What is missing from Lankov’s assessment is the complicity of the host states in the behavior. Compounding this is that when states accept these laborers they become complicit through their benefit from this labor. In terms of international norms it means those states have moved far past noninterference into an active state of profiteering.

From this it might seem very simple. Organize international action, develop a consensus and then impose reputation costs on states that profiteer. The reality is much more complicated, due to the elephant in the room, Kaesong. The Kaesong Industrial Complex was supposed to be a great example of cooperative engagement, the two Koreas working together. The idea was simple, North Korean workers making South Korean goods for a real income. The intent was to show the North the benefits of cooperation. The wages of the people however, seem to end up in the hands of the regime.

Where Lankov strains credulity comparing waitresses to SEALS, it is no great leap to link the workers of Kaesong with those in Qatar. The relationship between the two could well be causal as when the Kaesong project began to become part of the ongoing war of words between North and South, the number numbers of foreign workers in other states increased. Both sides have agreed, in theory, to its re-opening.

As a result, it is hard to develop an international consensus on being anti-North Korean slavery when the use of what is essentially slave labor remains a key diplomatic point of cooperation between both North and South. While engaging North Korea might not have the same shine that it did during decades past, it still remains a major component of the intellectual tradition surrounding North Korea.

Lankov is in a bit of a bind because he himself favors engagement and supports the efforts in Kaesong. A person in that position places themselves directly in the difficult spot of defending the use of what is essentially slavery as a means of promoting change. Intellectual gymnastics will inevitably follow.

This places the North Korean citizens working overseas in a rather difficult position, opposing their treatment entails asking very serious questions about the role of engagement in setting foreign policy towards the Kims. This is a debate that won’t be resolved easily but it also explains how national labor norms in those states when combined with the rather difficult place forced labor has in foreign policy towards North Korea complicates the response.

To begin to work to protect North Korean worker autonomy abroad means either engaging in special pleading or rethinking the historical narrative of the engagement policy towards North Korea.

About the author

Robert Potter

Robert Potter

Robert Potter is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland. Prior to this he was Research Assistant Volunteer at the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He took part in a research program in North Korea and China in 2013, and been a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University – Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, School of International and Public Affairs.

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