The hands feeding Kim Jong-un

Inside the secretive world of North Korean labourers sent abroad to bring home hundreds of millions of dollars to finance the Kim regime. 

By: /
January 30, 2018
Illustration by Sami Chouhdary.

As the dark and frigid November air envelops Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, a handful of North Koreans are still at work on a construction site. They can be seen shovelling, welding and plastering — at this late hour, their Mongolian colleagues have left, while they will stay overnight. They live on site, a Mongolian man familiar with the project tells me, where they are closely monitored and kept away from the population.

In Mongolia, about 1,000 North Koreans work in construction sites, textile factories, restaurants and medical clinics, according to the latest figures. But these workers, often hidden from public view and defined by the US State Department, the United Nations and many NGOs as forced labour, can be found on every continent except the Americas.

As a result of bilateral agreements with Pyongyang, a little more than 20 countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and even Europe host a total of 50,000 to 100,000 North Korean labourers. Russia and China, two countries entertaining relatively close relations with Kim Jong-un’s regime, have the largest shares (reports put the number of workers at approximately 30,000 for each country). The numbers are much lower in other countries, where estimates are generally in the hundreds.

For Pyongyang, deploying labourers abroad serves several purposes, such as strengthening relations with foreign countries and promoting its culture and know-how. But the biggest asset is financial. The most sanctioned and isolated country in the world confiscates most of the salaries and profits earned by its workers overseas to replenish its empty coffers and, many observers and governments suspect, to feed its ballistic and nuclear program.

The amount that these labourers send back home each year is between US$200 million and US$500 million. For a government that has a national budget of approximately US$3 billion, this is no pocket change.

That’s why the international community is now pressuring host countries to expel this workforce. Last September, as tensions flared between Kim and US President Donald Trump after Pyongyang conducted a series of ballistic and nuclear tests, the UN Security Council adopted a round of sanctions that, for the first time, explicitly targeted the workers that Kim’s communist regime sends abroad. While allowing workers to serve out existing contracts, the resolution demanded that host countries not issue or renew visas for these workers. Then, a few days before Christmas, another round of UN sanctions tightened the knot around North Korean workers overseas, giving host countries no more that 24 months to send them back.

Several countries have felt the diplomatic heat. Senegal, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Poland and Angola have all announced that they would stop issuing new visas. Reports also show that Beijing, Pyongyang’s main trading partner, has started closing North Korean businesses on its territory and sending North Korean workers back home.

The Mongolian government announced in early December that it would comply with the UN sanctions, expelling North Koreans labourers progressively, as their working permits expire. 

Freedom on a leash

Mongolians who have worked alongside North Koreans tell stories of curtailed freedom of movement and limited freedom of speech for these foreign labourers.

Yumjir, a Mongolian woman in her early 50s, worked with 20 to 40 North Korean women over seven years in a cashmere factory in Ulaanbaatar. After a long day at work, in her bulky, concrete, Soviet-era apartment — typical of Mongolian urban architecture — she recounts how a North Korean supervisor would often prowl the floor of the factory. When the supervisor was around, the North Korean workers would avoid talking to their Mongolian colleagues. “They never, never criticized their government,” she adds, after a sip of tea.

“We often teased them by bantering about their country or their leader… they invariably got upset and said that we didn’t know what we were talking about. They always kept in line and in control. They hid lots of things from us.”

North Koreans were not authorized to meet with other workers outside of the factory. A car shuttled them from work to the apartment they all shared.

There was one exception, on the birthday of one of her North Korean colleagues, Yumjir recalls. “Security guards — who were Mongolians — at the entrance of [the worker’s] apartment authorized me and five Mongolian colleagues to go inside,” she says. “We shared some food and we offered her a gift. We didn’t talk much. The TV was on and tuned on a North Korean channel, the only one they had. After one hour, the guards came up to tell us that we had to go.”

In September, Yumjir’s North Korean colleagues worked their last shift — though it was unclear why their time at the factory came to an end. Many were crying. “It was a moving moment for everyone,” Yumjir says. “But we don’t know if they were hired somewhere else in Mongolia or [if they] left for their home country. It’s impossible to stay in touch. No email address, no phone number.”

In contrast to their compatriots labouring on construction sites and textile factories, North Koreans working in restaurants have to interact directly with customers. But as visits to these establishments showed me, conversations are deliberately kept at a minimum.

In one of the three North Korean restaurants in Ulaanbaatar, a waitress in her early 20s wearing an impeccable black dress took orders from customers from Mongolia, China and South Korea. The flat-screen TV suspended on the wall showed concerts of North Korean music played by women in traditional clothes. The waitress also took an order from the only Westerner in the dining room — me — with an unwavering, cultivated smile. Every time she came to the table, my interpreter and I tried to learn more about her by asking basic questions: How old are you? Where are you from? When did you arrive here? All were gently dodged. We only managed to learn that she had previously lived in Beijing and that, in addition to Korean, she spoke Mongolian and Chinese.

Even though photography is allowed in some of the 100 or so North Korean restaurants that can be found across Asia and beyond, I instantly learned that it was forbidden at this establishment when I pulled out my smartphone. Another waitress immediately rushed towards me, saying, “No photo!” with an insistent — yet still polite — voice.

Just before leaving the restaurant, we risked one last question to our waitress: How many North Koreans work in this restaurant? Again, she subtly waved her finger, signalling that she wouldn’t answer that one either. Then, with the same fixed smile, she whispered a timid “thank you” and walked us to the door. 

We didn’t leave without paying a bill that was quite substantial compared to what one would expect at the numerous South Korean restaurants that serve similar dishes in Ulaanbaatar. For instance, at the North Korean restaurant we visited, one must spend 18,000 tugriks (US$10) to down a Taedonggang, a North Korean beer. By Mongolian standards, this is highway robbery. In another North Korean restaurant, foreign beers that are even more common, such as Tiger from Singapore, were listed at a similar price on the menu.

Knowing that most of the salaries and profits earned from serving North Korean dishes end up in the Kim regime’s coffers, a South Korean diplomat working in Mongolia told me that Seoul asks its citizens to avoid these kinds of restaurants all over the world.

The same goes for medical clinics that mix “oriental medicine with European methods,” as an ad aired in Mongolian on YouTube claims. In one of the two clinics in service in Ulaanbaatar, a patient has to spend 25,000 tugriks (US$12) for a consultation with a North Korean doctor — 10,000 tugriks more than with a Mongolian doctor in the same clinic. In a doctor’s office where a small North Korean flag was displayed, a treatment of acupuncture, massages and cupping is offered for the hefty sum of 300,000 tugriks (US$150). But as the affluence displayed in the new and shiny clinic suggested, Mongolians prize the expertise of North Korean practitioners.

Money in the regime’s pocket

Since most of the salaries earned by North Korean workers are confiscated by the Kim regime, only a fraction goes into their own pockets. According to the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and to NGOs such as the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), which did an exhaustive investigation in Poland and Mongolia in 2016, the portion of workers’ salaries claimed by Pyongyang oscillates between 60 and 90 percent.

These figures fit with what Jong-su (a pseudonym) says he received when he was deployed to Malaysia in the late 1990s and again in the late 2000s, after which he finally decided to drive to the South Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur and ask for asylum.

I met with the 40-year-old man following his visit to mass on a Sunday in November, on the terrace of a coffee shop in downtown Seoul. Dressed in a worn grey suit and a pale blue shirt with an open collar, he told me that he earned US$80 per week on his first overseas assignment, and US$150 on his second, as he moved from assistant-supervisor to supervisor. But he learned from a source in the North Korean government that the “real” salary paid by the local company was US$600 and US$3500, respectively. “My government confiscated the rest,” he says, sipping green tea in the lukewarm sun.

North Korea money

Rim-il, 50, who worked in Kuwait back in 1996 and 1997, didn’t have such “luck.” The North Korean refugee, who I also met in Seoul, escaped only half a year after his deployment. He said he got barely any of the US$120 per month he was promised, “a colossal sum in North Korea.” He only received a handful of dollars on the anniversary of North Korea founding president Kim Il-sung’s birthday.

As a result, he couldn’t send any money to his family back in North Korea, as Jong-su did. Since wiring money through banks wasn’t possible, because of international sanctions, while he was working Jong-su sent his family some of the money he saved in cash through colleagues who flew back home — a common practice among North Koreans working overseas.

When Mongolia was hit by a severe recession two years ago, many North Koreans were forced to work for free, as local companies who had hired them refused to pay them at all. Many such cases were documented in NKDB’s 2016 report. For instance, one North Korean confided that his remuneration for a year of hard labour was the apartment in which he lived while working on site. 

Bat-erdene (a pseudonym), a former Mongolian policeman with a wrestler’s body, witnessed this withholding of wages while spending time with North Korean labourers. The Mongolian holding company he used to work for employed hundreds of them. “I know what it is to be a foreign worker. It’s tough,” says Bat-erdene — who often lent a hand to these workers left with few resources when facing problems. “Here, North Koreans live on construction sites 24 hours a day. They work really hard. So when a company doesn’t pay them, I go tell the boss that his building won’t stand for long if he doesn’t hand them their salaries.”

Limited in their freedom of movement, asking for help outside their community is difficult for North Koreans, says Bat-erdene.

But when they are paid — despite in amounts considered paltry by foreign standards — many North Koreans manage to save money over the years and return home with a little bundle in their pockets.

Based on sources living in North Korea, DailyNK reported last December that restaurant workers who recently came back from a three-year stint in China invested their savings in the growing local market economy.

For instance, one waitress in her 20s, who reportedly saved US$3,000, paid US$2,000 for an apartment and began selling industrial equipment.  

DailyNK explained that the returning North Koreans arouse conflicting reactions among the population, betraying a change of mentality from one generation to the other. While younger North Koreans see them as smart and worldly and approve of their decision to invest in their own future, older ones expect that they will share their little fortune with their relatives. For an older generation, their behaviour is immoral and “tainted by capitalism.”

But if gaining knowledge from the outside world is welcome to a certain extent, refugees I spoke with in Seoul bring to light a vast system of control deployed by North Korean authorities, aimed at limiting the workers’ exposure to foreign influences while abroad.  

A strict vetting and surveillance system

During his first deployment in Malaysia, Jong-su worked as an engineer on a construction project. He supervised 200 North Koreans who built the road that led to a luxurious resort on Borneo Island.

But before he could leave North Korea, Jung-su had to go through a vetting process that took almost a year. “They do a thorough background check on your family. And not just the nuclear family, but your cousins and your cousins’ cousins. Even your ancestors,” he explains. “The whole family must have a good reputation, which means that no one must have attempted to flee the country or committed a crime. If this is the case, you cannot go.”

As part of the process, he had classes in which workers were told “how bad and brutal Americans are and that they must be considered as enemies.”

Rim-il says that before leaving Pyongyang for the Kuwaiti desert to work on a residential development, he was taught to fear the South Koreans. “They told us that agents from the South Korean secret services could kidnap us and send us to Seoul, where we would be harassed and tortured. For three days, and for two hours each day, we had to watch very graphic films of South Korean agents pulling eyeballs from North Koreans’ heads, beating them with their feet and baseball bats… I was terrified,” he recalls over a meal of Chinese food.

He also had to pass what he calls “loyalty tests.”

“Once a week, we had a meeting during which we had to confess our wrongdoings,” Rim-il says. “Twice a week, we had group studies on the regime, the ideology and our leader. I also had to clean the portrait or the statue of Kim Il-sung and [then-president] Kim Jong-il. All of this was counted on my loyalty score card.” The person in charge of surveillance in his neighbourhood in Pyongyang finally confirmed his good behaviour to the authorities.

Once in Kuwait, Rim-il’s group of 20 workers had to continue their weekly reunions to confess their misdeeds — and those of their colleagues. “North Koreans are used to monitoring each other,” he says.

Jong-su says that intelligence officers could come for inspections at any moment. “It could be anyone from our group, living incognito among us.” They were also instructed not to meet with foreigners on a one-on-one basis. “We must always be at least two.” And when encounters with foreigners occurred, they were encouraged to actively promote socialism and the greatness of their communist regime.  

But the degree of freedom depended on whether one was high up in the hierarchy or a simple worker. “As a supervisor, I was authorized to move around and meet with locals, but only in a professional context,” Jong-su says. “In reality, though, we found ways to meet outside of work.”

Some North Koreans working overseas have indeed confided that they enjoyed the relative freedom compared to life at home. And many of those working in Russia are supposedly living quite freely as well, at least compared to their compatriots deployed to China, who reportedly live in “prison-like conditions.” 

North Korea passport

In Malaysia, the workers living on site under Jong-su’s supervision experienced conditions similar to those in China. To raise spirits, “when one of them had his birthday, one of us in the management team would go to the market to buy a cake or something,” he says.

Foreign cultural products were prohibited — watching South Korean films or dramas was a particularly severe infraction, Jong-su remembers, more so than watching American movies. He admits having watched many of each. But again, this is a luxury hardly accessible for workers confined to living on the construction site.

Workers’ passports are also confiscated on arrival, he adds — a common practice confirmed by Mongolian sources and NKDB’s report.

Contrary to Jung-su, who said he had a decent and comfortable life in Pyongyang, Rim-il, like most of his compatriots, desperately wanted to be sent abroad, as his country was going through a famine that ultimately claimed two million lives. He was married and had a young daughter. “If you want to leave, having a family back home is mandatory. They’re kept as hostages, forcing North Koreans abroad to think twice before doing anything wrong,” he says. “Before I left my country, I heard stories of families of defectors who lost their jobs and were resettled in inhospitable parts of the country.”

In the end, when he decided to seek asylum at the South Korean embassy in Kuwait City, Rim-il had to give up his family back home. Now living in Seoul, Rim-il remarried and had a son with another North Korean refugee, but will always wonder what happened to the wife and child he left behind. 

Denounced internationally, valued locally

In 2015, the International Labour Organization accused Mongolia of violating the Forced Labour Convention, of which the country is a signatory, and called on Ulaanbaatar to put an end to this form of exploitation.

Though controversial, this unique workforce is nonetheless valued by local companies.

“They work tirelessly and well and they never complain,” says Gerelee (a pseudonym), a Mongolian woman in her 30s who once hired 10 North Koreans to renovate the basement of a governmental building. “The Mongolians, however, drag their feet and arrive late at work, if they come at all after a night of boozing. Construction projects always run beyond schedule. But with North Koreans, you never have these kinds of problems.”

Compared to local workers, North Koreans prove to be cheap labour as well. Amarjargal, a Mongolian engineer, shows me a recent annual financial report of the cement company she works for, on her personal laptop. The 10 North Koreans hired for two years were each paid US$350 per month, of which US$50 was subtracted for meals. Housing — a dormitory — was provided. Mongolians, though, were paid between US$800 and US$1,200 per month. “They performed the same tasks,” she stresses.

The US$300 per North Korean was not entirely pocketed by the workers themselves, asserts Amarjargal, who doesn’t know how much exactly was taken by North Korean authorities. But the rumours circulating on the worksite estimated it was 70 percent, she says.

Mongolia — trying to stay friends with everyone

For the government in Ulaanbaatar, the bilateral program signed with Pyongyang in 2007 that allowed North Koreans to work legally in Mongolia finds its roots in the fraternal relationship that the two countries have enjoyed since the Soviet era. When Mongolia had a communist regime, the two countries had strong relations. Mongolia was the second country after the Soviet Union to recognize the DPRK in 1948, and it provided assistance to the North during and after the Korean War. It also welcomed hundreds of North Korean orphans in the post-war years, a historical fact that many Mongolians are still aware of today.

The relationship stalled in the 1990s, when Mongolia became a democratic regime with a free-market economy, but tightened again in the early 2000s. This makes Mongolia one of the rare countries in the world to enjoy close relations with North Korea, as it does with South Korea, Japan, the Unites States and Canada.

This is a unique feature that the Mongolian government has highlighted in its attempts to become an international mediator. It even brands itself as a “neutral state” and calls itself “Northeast Asia’s Geneva.” Four years ago, it launched the “Ulaanbaatar Dialogue,” an annual closed-door forum in which researchers and civil servants from the United States and Northeast Asian countries, including North Korea, exchange ideas on security issues, including the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Canada participated as an observer last summer. 

The tightrope Mongolia has been walking between the US, South Korea, Japan and their allies on one side and North Korea on the other puts it in a tricky situation with regards to the current situation with the workers and the sanctions against them. A few months ago, a well-informed source in the Mongolian ministry of foreign affairs, speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted that Ulaanbaatar “shares the concerns of the international community regarding the behaviour of the North Korean regime,” but that at the same time it “wants to spare its relation with Pyongyang.”

“It’s hard for Mongolia to decide between North and South Korea,” confided another anonymous source from the ministry of defence.

But as diplomatic pressure increased, Ulaanbaatar finally decided to comply with the UN sanctions requirement not to issue or renew visas to North Korean labourers. “Mongolia is in need of large-scale foreign investment, and it wouldn’t be easy to bring in investors if there are North Korean workers in the country,” explained an unnamed Mongolian source to Radio Free Asia at the end of December, adding that a first contingent of North Koreans had already left the country by train.

But tens of thousands of North Korean labourers are still toiling away from home. What fate awaits the growing contingent of those who take a one-way journey back to North Korea?

In the early 2000s, having returned from his first deployment in Malaysia, Jong-su had to show up at a government office day after day to confess his missteps and wrongdoings while abroad to the authorities in Pyongyang. But by bribing the authorities with a tidy US$1,000, he could spare himself this “very irritating” duty. 

“But you must never talk to other North Koreans about what you saw abroad,” he adds unreservedly. “When someone asked me, ‘how was Malaysia,’ I answered that it wasn’t really different from home. You must shut up or lie… unless you’re looking for trouble.” 

Illustrations by Sami Chouhdary.