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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Spiritual Pollution and the Export of Labor

by | August 7th, 2013 | 06:31 am

An ongoing source of revenue for North Korea is the organized export of labor, where North Koreans are sent abroad to work and the state or its designated intermediary rakes in the lion’s share of the revenue.  (However, this practice should not be confused with voluntary remittances from diaspora communities.) The Chosun Ilbo, not citing any particular source, recently claimed that there are 46,000 North Koreans working abroad. While the practice earns money for the regime, it comes with risks: it has been rumored that North Koreans were left stranded in Libya and Egypt after those two countries experienced political upheavals; the regime preferred abandoning these workers to allowing them to return and tell what they had seen.

China remains a favorite, and presumably safe, destination: in a couple of previous posts we had noted the expansion of the program to send temporary workers to China, with some claiming that the two countries had agreed to increase the number of North Koreans working in China to 120,000.

But even the China trade comes with risks. Earlier this year the Asahi Shimbun published an interesting piece which observed that many of the workers sent to China are actually working for South Korean firms, many in garment and precision instrument assembly. Some are even working for US firms in the Tumen development zone in Jilin province. (It is not clear if this sort of activity would be affected by the sanctions legislation proposed by Representative Ed Royce  (R-CA).) The paper reported that while Japanese sanctions against North Korea do not prohibit this type of activity, Japanese firms have been reluctant to get involved for fear of a consumer backlash or problems with other Japanese companies.

According to the Asahi Shimbun article, “three years ago, faced with a labor shortage and increasing personnel costs, a group of companies affiliated with South Korean businesses in Jilin province asked local governments there to start accepting North Korean workers.” The demand for North Korean workers in China comes in the context of ever-tightening sanctions at home which discourages — if not prohibits — foreign investment.

Implicit in these arrangements is that foreign managers are actually interacting with North Korean workers, in contrast to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where South Korean managers are barred from interacting with North Korean workers on the shop floor, and all instructions must be transmitted via North Korean intermediary managers.

The implication seems to be that the potential for spiritual pollution is pervasive outside North Korea. It appears that an unintended byproduct of North Korea’s weak business enabling environment and the sanctions regime is to push North Korea outward, encouraging further weakening of the regime’s control over information.