Does North Korea Engage in Human Trafficking?

North Korea (NEO) – Alongside the sanctions against the Kim Jong-un, North Korea have been accused of another crime that sounds plausible to the average citizen of the civilized world. Human trafficking!

The annual Trafficking in Persons Report published by the U.S. Department of State on June 30 places North Korea in the third tier in their rating (based on the extent that it neglects the problem) for the 14th time in a row. This category includes hugely disadvantaged countries that do not even meet the minimum requirements of the U.S. Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act and are therefore subject to sanctions. In addition to North Korea, these countries are Algeria, Myanmar, Gambia, Haiti, Iran, Russia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Syria, and a number of other countries.

The report states that North Korea is a source country for men, women, and children who are subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking: the terrible human rights situation inside the country forces North Korean citizens to flee abroad, which itself is one of the reasons that the problem of trafficking becomes worse. According to the available data, approximately 10 thousand women fled from North Korea. They usually end up in China, where many of them become victims of abductions, sexual slavery and forced labour. Furthermore, young girls who enter China on artistic visas (one in eight of them is a minor), “are actively recruited for customer service work in restaurants in China.” This is reported by yet another completely anonymous “source with knowledge on the situation.”
It is worth remembering that the report contains information on “concentration camps”, which hold over 120 thousand political prisoners who ended up there without a trial or criminal investigation. The conditions of their imprisonment are terrible: they are subjected to torture, sexual abuse and forced labour (of course, this information comes from Shin Dong-hyuk et al, not normal sources). Moreover, North Korean workers in China and Russia are suffering difficult labour conditions and scant wages, while Pyongyang is not taking any measures to solve the aforementioned problems.

Meanwhile, South Korea has been ranked in the first tier for 14 years in a row. This first tier ranking indicates that a government makes efforts to address the problem and complies with the U.S. standards.

Here, there is a very clear example of double standards, when all attempts are made to demonize the North Korean regime, given its specific features, as long as those who cast the stones look good. It is no longer a surprise that the damning testimonies come from anonymous sources (and the level of exaggeration goes without saying.) The crux of the matter lies elsewhere.

“Human trafficking” has a specific definition, and there has been no direct evidence that North Korean authorities were engaged in it. The accusation is based on the fact that North Korea has such a terrible regime that people flee and become victims of human trafficking. However, the criminal gangs that oversee human trafficking are neither made up of North Korean security officials nor led by them. They cannot be directly linked to the fact that women cross the border of North Korea and then end up in the East Asian brothels.

Image Source: John Pavelka, Flickr, Creative Commons Star of the DPRK Panorama Hall of the Operation for the Liberation of Taejon; Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum Pyongyang, DPRK (North Korea)

Image Source: John Pavelka, Flickr, Creative Commons
Star of the DPRK
Panorama Hall of the Operation for the Liberation of Taejon;
Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
Pyongyang, DPRK (North Korea)

North Korea also does not practice, as do some other countries, forced exile when a person is deported from the country within a 24-hour period without the means to survive. In such cases, the girl thrown into the street of another town by the state might well become a victim of crime, and thus part of the blame lies with the state that “threw her out”. But there is another case here.

Even if we cast a vastly broader net, sending workers abroad who then live in the conditions similar to barracks and send part of their salary back to benefit their home country still does not fit the standard definition of human traffic. After all, workers do return home, and the remaining salary they have in their pockets is enough to live on anyway. Thus, working abroad is seen as a beneficial and profitable business that one needs to enter a competition or have the correct profile in order to carry out. This is a far cry from the situation when the state forcibly sends its workers somewhere where the working and living conditions are much worse than in their home country. If we thus assess the situation with North Korean workers, then Vietnamese or Tajik guest workers could also easily be added to the same list, and their governments may be subject to sanctions. Why not?

In this context, I would like to draw attention to the “Global Slavery Index” published on May 31 by the Australian human rights organisation “Walk Free Foundation“. Their definition of slaves refers to the people who have been forced or deceived into undertaking some form of work. India was ranked first with 18.4 million people. After that, the top five, which accounts for 58% of all the “slaves” worldwide, is made up of China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. However, in terms of the proportion of the total population, North Korea was ranked first with 4.37% (followed by Uzbekistan – 3.97%, Cambodia – 1.6%, India – 1.4%, and Qatar – 1.36%). The index compilers also note the low level of efforts taken to counter this issue at the government level.

It is clear that the responsibility for a certain action can be either symbolic or direct. For example, the head of state holds symbolic responsibility for everything that happens in his or her territory, including, for instance, a criminal group within security officials. However, it is wrong to accuse the head of state of actually organising such a criminal group, unless there is evidence that he or she specifically turned a blind eye regarding these criminals and their actions. Otherwise, if we follow the same logic, President Obama, for example, could be accused of tacit consent to the shooting in the gay club in Orlando.

It is especially interesting in this case that the direct perpetrators of human trafficking got away with it. All the blame falls on Kim Jong-un, but not on the actual criminal groups involved in the deception of the citizens of North Korea and forcing them to believe they are choosing freedom, but actually, they end up in foreign brothels. Frequently enough, it is Chinese or Chinese Koreans that the Chinese government is taking rather tough measures to fight, without washing their dirty linen in public. But there are situations that are far more intricate where it turns out that representatives of the South Korean NGOs are involved in such matters. In this way, they raise additional funds for their human rights or missionary work.

Approximately 70% of defectors are female. It costs a certain amount of money to smuggle them out, and if a woman does not come from a rich enough family or it is impossible to widely publicise their escape as a “choice of freedom”, then she can pay the expenses with her own body. As the author was informed by some Chinese colleagues, this practice is more widespread than you would think – it is just that there is nobody to report it to. Occasionally, elements of this practice emerge when yet another pastor is arrested in China or North Korea, and human trafficking is included in the list of charges against them. And in South Korea itself, a lot of female refugees suffer from an infringement of their rights, become victims of domestic violence or are recruited into the sex industry. This was reported by an employee of Hanshin Eurasia Institute at the University Hanshin Kim Hwa-sung during a speech made at a forum on this subject.

However, it was not the aim of the authors of this report, but the U.S. State Department has emphasised that the data would be the basis for further intensifying pressure on the North with sanctions. Although in reality, crux of the “human trafficking” problem usually lies elsewhere, and the South Korean media often reveal this. Here is a typical example of an article of this type:

– North Korea’s foreign currency earnings are growing under Kim Jong-un due to forced labour abroad. This is revealed in the report prepared by a team of researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands. It analyses the forced labour of North Korean citizens in Poland. It is estimated that they have earned a total of over half of the total trade volume between the EU and North Korea, amounting to EUR 30 million.

This is exactly why the hysteria blows out of all proportion. The main purpose of the hysteria around “human trafficking” is to cut off Pyongyang’s source of foreign currency earned by North Koreans working abroad. However, seeing as it is not possible to simply cut off the source (there is no UN resolution banning the exports of labour yet), and subject of human rights was tarnished by the Shin Dong-hyuk scandal, the search is on for new ways to make North Korea suffer.

Thus, the following question arises: how effective has the new package of sanctions turned out to be if the USA and its allies are seeking to underpin them in any way possible? This will be discussed in one of the following articles.

This report prepared by Konstantin Asmolov for New Eastern Outlook.