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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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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