Pyongyang is garnering billions of dollars annually from North Koreans working abroad, including in Cambodia, in conditions akin to forced labour, according to a United Nations investigation.
A report released by the special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, last week estimated that more than 50,000 citizens were employed outside the country as part of a state-sponsored system to earn foreign currency while circumventing UN-imposed sanctions.
Between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion is believed to be sent back to the country annually, mostly by workers in China and Russia. But the report also singled out Cambodia and Malaysia as sites of North Korean employment in Southeast Asia.
“Companies hiring overseas workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labour,” Darusman noted. “They should report any abuses to the local authorities, which have the obligation to investigate thoroughly, and end such partnership.”
Human rights groups working on North Korea said that research barriers make data collection on exported labour to Cambodia difficult. However, previous investigations, including NGO interviews with North Korean defectors, have found that citizens of the country have been employed in the Kingdom’s five North Korean restaurants, which are each estimated to remit about $10,000 to $30,000 a year in payments.
Accounts from former employees given to rights groups have suggested coercion and forced labour, though the accounts could not be independently verified. Even if the conditions don’t strictly qualify as forced labour, rights groups say, employees are still heavily policed and exploited.
“We have a situation where money from restaurants is going straight back to the North Korean government, with employees getting only a fraction of what they should earn and with severe restrictions on their movement,” said Human Rights Watch’s Phil Roberston. “It is highly unethical to patronise these restaurants, and no government should allow them to operate on their soil.”
Cambodia has long had cosy relations with North Korea, dating back to the late King Norodom Sihanouk’s friendship with North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
The Ministry of Labour could not be reached for comment yesterday, and a spokesperson for the Ministry of Commerce declined to respond to criticism of Pyongyang’s restaurant operations in Cambodia.
A representative of the North Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh said that there was “no forced labour” of North Koreans abroad, in Cambodia or elsewhere.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA