Tens of thousands of North Korean workers have been laboring long hours in horrific conditions abroad to send remittances home, and the countries that they might currently be working in — including Russia, China, and Qatar — are coming under scrutiny from the United Nations.
In an interview with VICE News, a former North Korean overseas worker called Mr. Kim — who doesn't want his full name used because of concerns for his family — spoke of the brutal and inhumane circumstances he experienced in Russia, while the North Korean state was awarded the vast majority of his wage.
His comments come a day after Marzuki Darusman, the UN special rapporteur for North Korea, announced in Geneva that he planned to probe further into allegations that at least 20,000 overseas laborers are working exhausting hours in inhumane environments to earn money for the reclusive state.
Darusman said that he had heard reports that North Korean workers were in Qatar, working on the construction of facilities for the 2022 World Cup.
Also present in Switzerland was North Korean diplomat Kim Yong-ho, who reiterated complaints about a year-old UN report highlighting North Korea's abysmal human rights record, saying it was based on false testimony. He went on to call for Darusman's resignation.
Mr. Kim said he traveled to Russia in 2000, where he worked at a logging site. "Life in North Korea was very difficult. We did not receive huge money so I wanted to earn by going out to work," he said. "So I applied to go east to Russia so I could earn more money."
After he arrived, however, Kim realized that he had not necessarily upgraded his situation.
"When I went to Russia I found out that the authorities were taking a large amount of my money, and the conditions at the work site were very hard," he told VICE News. He would regularly have to work in temperatures of between -58 and -76 Fahrenheit (-50 and -60 degrees Celsius), and the hours were grueling — lasting from early morning to midnight without any days off.
Kim alleged that the North Korean regime took about 95 percent of his salary. After two years in Russia, he finally managed to escape in 2002. It took him another 11 years to make it to South Korea.
Throughout his time in Russia, Kim told VICE News that his movements were carefully controlled by the North Korean state. "While I was working at the work site I could not meet any foreigners," he said. "If I wanted to go outside to find food or if I had to go to the hospital then I had to get permission from the North Korean authorities."
However, Kim said that he did occasionally manage to visit a local market where he would meet other foreigners, though the language barriers would likely have prohibited any meaningful interactions.
Mr. Kim speaking about his experience as an overseas worker. Photo via UN Watch.
One day, according to Kim's account, the authorities overseeing the workers traveled to a meeting, leaving no guards behind them. "At that time I secretly fled the work site," Kim said. "That's how I made my escape."
One of the reasons why it is so difficult to get accurate information about overseas North Korean workers is the fear that escapees often feel long after they manage a getaway.
Defector and NK Watch executive director Ahn Myeong Chul told VICE News that his organization finds it "very hard to get testimonies from overseas workers because their families remain in Korea." The fear for those left behind is pervasive for the individuals that escape, and debilitating for those collating information about the secretive state.
Before his escape, Ahn worked as a prison guard in a gulag. He has spoken about being subjected to "brainwashing," the result of which was a belief that political prisoners were enemies of the state and unworthy of sympathy.
Both Kim and Ahn are currently in Geneva to participate in the UN's Human Rights Council.
North Korea actively seeks to discredit defectors, and has labeled them "human scum." The recent revelation that prominent defector Shin Dong-hyuk had lied about some key aspects of his personal story provided further ammunition for their accusations.
When asked whether he believes his dedication to being vocal about the way North Korea treats its citizens can have any sort of real impact on the situation for citizens still in the state, Ahn said: "Speaking about these issues is very important because people still inside cannot talk about it themselves; We have to raise the issues in the forums or in the United Nations so that the international community can act on behalf of them."
Last month, North Korea's foreign minister Ri Su-yong labeled a UN resolution that focuses on the country's human rights record illegal and based on "lies." Ahn also responded to this, telling VICE News: "The foreign minister is very old and his health is not very good but he came to Geneva because of the report from North Korea defectors."
Ahn added that he feels very "pitiful" for the foreign minister, but the strong and "urgent" reaction from the state was obviously provoked by the UN condemnation and the testimony of an ever-increasing number of defectors.
"Attention from the international community and the media on these issues is very important," Ahn continued. He added that the governments of countries where the North Korean workers are located have a responsibility to "pay the workers directly, not through the North Korean government."
Kim agreed and told VICE News that he welcomed the UN rapporteur's comments, and felt that Russia and other implicated countries would now be forced to pay more attention. "This might be a way to solve these issues," he said.
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd