Geopolitics

Is Kim Jong-un Exporting North Korean Slave Labor To Europe?

The accusation is serious: North Korea is sending forced laborers to Poland to be able to send money back to the regime. No one wants to take responsibility.

Shipyard worker in Gdynia, Poland
Shipyard worker in Gdynia, Poland
Philipp Fritz

GDYNIA — The dock is almost 400 meters long and 70 meters wide and is one of the largest container crane ports on the Baltic Sea coast. Nearby in this northern Polish city, a company called Crist manufactures parts for container ships and offshore wind farms, destined mostly for Western European countries. And recently, Crist has received 37 million euros from Brussels, from a fund that aims to create jobs in European Union regions that have historically struggled economically.

But there is a detail the officials in Brussels probably missed: not all who work in these shipyards may be here voluntarily.

On the project, among subcontractors and temporary employment agencies, are workers that some authorities believe are from North Korea. They are working for very low wages and in inhumane conditions. North Koreans working abroad under slave-like conditions is something you might hear about in Russia or China — but it also takes place in the middle of the EU, as the example of Poland shows.

Forced laborers are a welcome source of income.

But there is now resistance. For the first time, a North Korean, who claims to have worked in the shipyard in Gdynia, has turned to a lawyer. He claims that the Pyongyang regime sent him to Poland, where he was forced to work twelve hours a day under harsh conditions at the Crist shipyard. And there is another similar case that dates back to 2014.

At that time, a welder by the name of Chon Kyongsu died at Crist. He wasn't wearing a fireproof protective suit, and a spark set off a blaze and he burned alive. While the Polish investigation drew attention to the shipyard, it also confirmed the assumption that North Koreans were working under inhumane and unsafe conditions. Nobody was concerned because Chon Kyongsu was not officially employed by Crist. The Polish judiciary had no access.

Port of Gdynia — Photo: Michael Gorski/Wikimedia

Now there is another case. The man currently testifying could make a difference. He is not accessible to anyone and remains anonymous to the public and press. "For security reasons, I cannot say anything about the whereabouts of the North Korean," his lawyer Barbara van Straaten recently told Die Welt.

Van Straaten is a lawyer in the Netherlands and prefers not to talk publicly. Not only is the long arm of the North Korean regime a threat, but the Polish authorities have in the past not necessarily cooperated in clarifying similar cases.

On one hand, certain Polish companies view North Koreans as cheap labor. On the other, there is the regime in Pyongyang. Forced laborers are a welcome source of income. According to UN estimates, North Korea makes between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion a year by sending its workers overseas to do heavy physical labor on farms or in factories. Professor of Korean Studies Remco Breuer has spoken of "modern slavery."

More than 50,000 North Koreans around the world are believed to work in often even crueler conditions in more than 40 countries. For non-EU citizens, Poland issues five different types of work permits that cannot exceed three years, unless extended by the employer. So it's not easy to say how many North Koreans are currently in Poland. In 2015 alone, 466 permits were issued.

Questioned by Die Welt, the Polish immigration authorities replied that they were not responsible for North Koreans. Breuer suspects that today up to 800 work in Polish plants. Although this number is small compared to the several thousand North Korean workers in China, Poland is still important from Pyongyang's point of view as salaries are higher.

Chances are that we will have to wait until a trial to learn more about the conditions under which North Korean forced laborers perform their duties in Poland. This would take place before a Dutch court because the indictment is directed primarily against a Dutch company said to have supplied workers to Crist in Poland. Van Straaten's Amsterdam law firm Prakken d'Oliveira has yet to publicly name the company.

The Polish law enforcement authorities have never clarified any cases concerning North Korean laborers. A lack of confidence in the Polish authorities may be one of the reasons why van Straaten and her client have decided to speak publicly about a company that benefits indirectly from forced labor.

Overall, there are only a few reports that provide information about the working conditions of North Koreans in the country. The most detailed one so far was presented in 2016 by scientists from the Asia Center in Leiden, under the leadership of Korea expert Breuer.

They are not allowed to move freely within the country.

Follow-up reports were published in 2017 and 2018. The team from Leiden managed to conduct in-house interviews with North Korean workers in Poland. Concerned about their safety and that of their families back in North Korea, all the participants were cited anonymously.

They give an insight into a reality of life that is completely incompatible with European labor standards and prove that Polish authorities are apparently unable or unwilling to enforce them. For example, the North Koreans are not allowed to move freely within the country, limited to commuting between their shared accommodation and workplaces, including shipyards such as Crist, another in the western Polish city of Szczecin or farms in rural areas. There they receive "ideological lessons' from regime representatives that are dedicated to dictator Kim Jong-un, and otherwise fiercely shielded from the outside world.

The labor itself is also extreme: six days a week, shifts of twelve hours or more, and the North Koreans only receive a very small salary to feed themselves — the rest goes to the regime in Pyongyang, and another small part to the families at home. All are held hostage, so to speak. If the North Koreans do not deliver in Poland, their relatives will be punished and threatened to be sent to a labor camp.

"To make it clear: We ourselves have never employed North Korean workers," says Tomasz Wrzask, PR manager at Crist, to Die Welt. "Several years ago, we worked with subcontractor Armex, which specializes in steelwork," Wrzask continued. "They have worked with many companies, including our shipyard. They've hired the North Koreans."

In 2014, the Polish company Armex actually hired North Korean welders. It was one of two companies that took over the distribution of North Korean workers through Polish shipyards. Wrzask argues that Armex was able to produce all the necessary documents and that there was no reason to be suspicious: "It is strange that our company name is mentioned by the press, but not by the Dutch company. These are double standards."

Attorney van Straaten emphasizes that she is not out to get Crist. "In the past, it has already been reported how North Koreans were exploited in Polish yards, including by Crist," she says. "This case is about the terrible working conditions of North Koreans in Poland and specifically about the case of my client."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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