Written by Olivia Enos.

North Koreans seeking to escape the clutches of the brutal Kim regime often fall prey to human trafficking or human smuggling. Three of every four North Korean escapees are women, and it is estimated that 90 percent of them are trafficked.

One of the Kim regime’s top exports is forced labour. A report … suggests that between 50,000 and 60,000 North Korean workers are forced to labour overseas.

No wonder the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report rates North Korea as a Tier 3 nation – the worst ranking a country can receive. North Korea has received this ranking every year since the inauguration of the report nearly 20 years ago.

Of course, not everyone who defects from North Korea becomes a victim of trafficking. Christian missionaries or other non-religious Good Samaritans operate an underground railroad to help many gain freedom. However, most defectors pay a broker to help them flee, and some of those brokers operate exploitative human trafficking syndicates.

Both male and female defectors often find that their hopeful journey to freedom leads them to a terrible destination: a life of forced labour. Women face the additional dangers of sex trafficking, often winding up as unwilling mail-order-brides to Chinese men.

The risk of trafficking is high in large part because of China’s practice of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees. This practice, clearly a violation of Beijing’s legal obligations under the UN Refugee Convention, make conditions inside China especially perilous for North Koreans. Repatriated North Koreans face almost certain persecution, sometimes death. Typically, they are thrown into either a political or ordinary prison camp, where they are subjected to forced labour. Women found to be pregnant upon repatriation are often forced to abort their unborn children.

The most infamous form of punishment in North Korea occurs inside the political prison camps. The North Korean penal system uses forced labour as a method of “reforming” prisoners. North Korean escapees recount back-breaking, death-inducing conditions in the camps. Defector Kang Chol-hwan, for example, who was imprisoned in Yodok prison camp from age 9 to 19, lost several family members due to starvation and labour in the camp.

Between 80,000 and 120,000 North Koreans are being held in political prison camps today. Others are forced to work, in similarly deplorable conditions, in an extensive network of regular prison camps. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry report concludes that human rights conditions in North Korea may constitute crimes against humanity.

A less explored, but equally important form of forced labour inside North Korea is the dolgyeokdae system which closely resembles a form of debt bondage. There are an estimated 400,000 dolgyeokdae – all North Koreans of the lowest songbun, or class, who labour for 10 years without compensation out of loyalty to the regime. They are estimated to produce close to $1 billion in profits for the regime annually.

One of the Kim regime’s top exports is forced labour. A report by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies suggests that between 50,000 and 60,000 North Korean workers are forced to labour overseas, sometimes without compensation, for as much as 20 hours a day.

At one point, 16 countries—including Russia, China, and Burma—employed North Korean forced labourers. Since the international community expressed concerns about these workers, a handful of countries—including Malaysia, Kuwait, and Qatar—have expelled or refused to issue visas to North Korean forced labourers.

Conditions experienced by North Korean labourers abroad vary, but are often dire. While some receive compensation, most workers forfeit the majority of their wages to the Kim regime. Estimates of the Kim regime’s profits from forced labour abroad range from more than $350 million to as much as $2.3 billion annually.

While the regime’s use of human trafficking is primarily (and rightly) viewed as a threat to human rights, it also poses a threat to international security. North Korea has a long history of using illicit finance to fund its nuclear and missile weapons programs. Sheena Chestnut-Greitens, for example, outlines North Korea’s extensive network of illicit activities generating profits for the Kim regime including through drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and counterfeiting. Very few reports unpack the extent to which the North Korean government profits from human trafficking, beyond just its forced labour ventures abroad. No doubt, forced labour inside the prison camp systems contribute to the North Korean economy and may help facilitate the regime’s weapons development programs.

There are a number of steps the U.S. and the international community can and should take to alleviate the suffering of ordinary North Koreans. First, the U.S. should maintain North Korea’s Tier 3 ranking in the Trafficking in Persons report.

Second, as a result of the designation, North Korea should receive unique sanctions on the basis of human trafficking, rather than allowing these sanctions to be subsumed under other sanction regimes. Due to the large profits North Korea makes from human trafficking, the U.S. Treasury Department should identify the people who are funding these activities and cut them off from the U.S. financial system. The U.S. Treasury recently instituted secondary sanctions against ten North Korean entities, including Jong Yong Su, North Korea’s Minister of Labour, for his role in recruiting North Korean forced labourers entities – only the second time it has levied sanctions against North Korea specifically because of its deplorable human rights record.

Third, the U.S. should call upon China to discontinue its forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees.

Fourth, the U.S. and other countries should evaluate their policies to address North Korea’s prison camp system. Officials at the U.S. Department of State acknowledge that this is among the least developed aspects of U.S. policy to address human rights issues in North Korea, yet these modern-day gulags are where some of the worst human rights abuses take place.

The North Korean crisis will not be solved overnight, but incremental steps to address human rights abuses can go a long way toward bringing resolution. The U.S. should continue to see its policy toward North Korea as a comprehensive effort to address both national security and human rights challenges – perhaps addressing human trafficking can be a way to demonstrate that the U.S. cares just as much about North Korea’s human rights abuses as it does about its weapons programs.

Olivia Enos (@OliviaEnos) is a policy analyst in the Asian Studies Centre at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. She specialises in human rights and transnational criminal issues, including human trafficking and human smuggling, drug trafficking, religious freedom, refugee issues, and other social and humanitarian challenges facing Asia. She is co-founder of the Council on Asian Affairs and a regular contributor to Forbes. Image credit: CC by Clay Gilliland/Flickr.

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