North Korean forced laborers, in the heart of the European Union? It sounds impossible to believe. But a VICE investigation has found extensive evidence of North Koreans working in conditions of forced labor in Poland, with their wages funding the DPRK regime.
We were able to confirm that North Koreans are employed as manual workers in multiple locations across the country with their salaries apparently traveling through a network of companies directly into the pocket of the dictatorial Workers' Party.
VICE gained access to confidential documents such as service contracts, payment records, registers of persons, passport copies, and excerpts from a population register smuggled out of North Korea, the latter indicating a Polish company may be being run by a high-ranking member of the North Korean military.
The investigation was sparked by the death of a North Korean working as a welder at a major shipyard in the Gdansk region. He suffered 95 percent burns in an accident that was only possible because of inadequate working equipment and unsafe practices, the yard's responsible work inspector Tomasz Rutkowski told us.
After obtaining a copy of the official accident report by the Polish National Labor Inspectorate (PIP), we unraveled a complex web of organized exploitation, bureaucratic chaos, official indifference, and political ignorance that extends all the way to the European Commission. Most of all, the investigation shines a light on working conditions that appear to meet the definition for forced labor as laid out in the European Convention on Human Rights and by the International Labor Organization — labor that companies across Europe are profiting from as leader Kim Jong-un fills his coffers with foreign currency.
A document seen by VICE revealed that PIP found 14 different Polish companies using North Korean workers between 2010 and 2016.
A company known as the Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation, which is directly owned by Kim's Workers' Party and has been implicated in the illicit shipment of Scud missile parts to Egypt, was also named in the document.
Our investigation focused on Rungrado and three Polish companies, two of which we discovered supply North Korean workers to two major shipyards which build and repair ships for clients across the European Union (EU).
Watch the VICE film: Cash For Kim: North Koreans Are Working to Their Death in Poland (click CC for English subtitles):
PIP documents seen by VICE show two companies, Armex and Alson, owned by the same Polish businesswoman Cecylia Kowalska, supply North Korean laborers to Nauta, one of Poland's oldest shipyards, and Crist, where one worker lost his life after his clothes caught on fire last year. Nauta cites its "low labor costs" as one of the reasons it is "an ideal place for repairs of naval vessels for other NATO countries."
The PIP documents also show that between 2013 and 2016 Armex was supplied with North Korean workers by Rungrado, which a promotional brochure says is a company that trades cosmetics, clothing, and mineral water, among other things.
A comprehensive United Nations report published in February implicated Rungrado in the illicit shipment of Scud missile parts to Egypt, and it is also suspected of smuggling luxury goods into North Korea.
'We don't receive the money personally in our hands... When I return to [North] Korea I'll get the money'
Rungrado also supplies North Korean laborers to Atal, a leading Polish development company specializing in luxury apartment buildings, according to the PIP information. In response to VICE's questions, an Atal spokesperson said the North Koreans did not work for the company but for a sub-contractor, JP Construct, whose general manager Mateusz Zbigniew Juroszek is the son of Atal's chairman Zbigniew Juroszek.
VICE visited one Atal construction site in the city of Wroclaw, where we saw North Koreans at work. They worked constructing the floors and the walls, the Polish man guarding the site told us. "Atal had been working with Koreans for over eight years," he said, "which certainly means we can count on them."
North Korean workers observed by VICE at a construction site in Wroclaw. Screengrab from VICE film
PIP's documents show that North Koreans were also found working in industries such as surface construction, furniture production, agriculture, metalworking, medicine, and finance.
Conversations we managed to have with North Korean shipyard workers revealed they frequently work 11 to 12 hours a day, five days a week, with shorter seven hour shifts on Saturdays. We also observed workers being brought to an Atal construction site in Warsaw on a bus at 5.52am and picked up after 7pm, then taken to living quarters inside a heavily guarded compound in an isolated rural area.
We managed to speak to one North Korean by telephone, who when asked if he and his colleagues were supervised by guards as they worked said: "Of course we are." He could tell us "nothing more than that," he said, sounding nervous. We asked if talking to us could cause him problems and he replied: "Nothing good would come of it."
The compound where North Korean workers followed by VICE were delivered by bus at the end of their working day. Screengrab from VICE film
We were also able to speak to workers who enjoyed a slightly greater level of freedom, as they left the Crist shipyard by bicycle to travel home in groups of three or more — but even these workers told us they were not allowed to have cellphones or to have access to cash.
"We don't receive the money personally in our hands," said one. "We let the company look after it. When I return to [North] Korea I'll get the money. If we carried cash, there's a chance that we could lose it. Anyway we don't need any money on the way to and from work. We leave it to the company, that's safest."
He was unable to tell us how much he earned per hour or per month. When asked about the name of the North Korean company that had sent him to Poland, the worker said: "That's a secret."
'We go to work and then we go back home. That's all we do'
At their living quarters, four to five workers share a room with one bed each, another North Korean told us. As they are also required to work night shifts, there are usually two to three persons sleeping in the room at any time, he said.
We asked another if he was able to talk to Polish co-workers. "We simply don't have time. We go to work and then we go back home. That's all we do," he said.
When asked if it was true that workers were not allowed to keep wages, and their employer kept a large proportion, he said: "Unfortunately I cannot answer that question." After a pause, he added: "Let me clarify. We are working for the firm Armex. This firm, Armex, gives the money to our firm. Our firm then distributes the money to us."
'They drink beers with Poles, go out for pizza... The shipyard told us this information'
Armex refused to speak to us when contacted by telephone and email — but when we turned up at the headquarters we were able to speak to Kowalska.
She categorically denied that workers were not paid directly, stating that each worker was personally paid in cash each month, and signed a receipt for that pay packet.
"We personally hand them their money every month in an envelope," she said. "Some even count the notes."
Kowalska also said claims that workers were denied freedom of movement were entirely false. "They go out, go shopping, go sightseeing," she said. Maciej Kowalski, her son and an Armex board member, said North Koreans socialized with Polish colleagues, despite the language barrier. "They drink beers with Poles, go out for pizza," he said. "The shipyard told us this information."
'Access to media is denied, communication with family members in North Korea is limited, and ideological indoctrination lessons are more pervasive than those conducted in the DPRK'
Both VICE's observations and previous in-depth reports suggest if Armex's claims were true, their workers' situation would be highly unusual.
According to the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, workers abroad are deprived of the majority of their wages, which are paid in foreign currency direct to the DPRK, serving as a method of bypassing UN sanctions. "Laborers are rarely allowed to leave work sites or to come into contact with locals throughout their periods of forced labor. Access to media is denied, communication with family members in North Korea is limited, and ideological indoctrination lessons are more pervasive than those conducted in the DPRK," it said in a report published last September which was based on interviews with defectors.
The UN estimated in a report last year there are about 50,000 North Koreans abroad, earning the Kim regime $1.2billion to $2.3bn per year. The workers are paid very little, with their employers paying "significantly higher amounts" directly to the North Korean government, said special rapporteur Marzuki Darusman.
Research indicates workers are mostly from Pyongyang, and must be loyal to the regime, and married — allowing the threat of consequences for family members to act as leverage to ensure good behavior.
'In my view, North Korea is the world's largest illegal job agency... There is no real North Korean state — there is North Korea or Pyongyang Incorporated'
They are allowed a 40-day vacation back home after two years work, after which they work abroad for another three years. One worker we spoke to said he had been in Poland for five years.
Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean Studies at Holland's Leiden University who chairs a working group of experts to research North Korean forced laborers in the EU, puts the situation bluntly: "In my view, North Korea is the world's largest illegal job agency. They send people where they're needed to whoever wants to pay. There is no real North Korean state — there is North Korea or Pyongyang Incorporated. It's a company. It does everything to make sure the CEO and his director stay in power and that they make as much money as they can."
VICE also learned that the businesswoman Kowalska, who runs Armex and Alson, also co-founded a Polish company Wonye — Korean for "horticulture" — with two North Korean men in 2015.
According to Kowalska, this business is inactive. But when VICE traveled to the Polish address at which one of the North Korean founders is registered, we discovered it was a gas station 15 miles south of Warsaw situated close to a large tomato-growing warehouse where locals said North Koreans worked.
This North Korean founder's name is Kang Hong-gu, according to the company registration. There was only one person by this name registered in Pyongyang in a population register for 2004 obtained by VICE, and he had the same birth year as that listed for the Kang Hong-gu in the Polish company registration documents.
According to information in the Pyongyang population register, Kang served as a brigade commander in the North Korean military as recently as 2004.
The Polish Department of Labor was unable to tell VICE how many North Korean laborers are currently in Poland, nor why no action was being taken regarding the credible evidence that they were working under illegal conditions.
'Without doubt, there are signs of [forced labor]. And we are not the only ones getting these signs.'
All it was able to supply was information for the number of work permits regional authorities throughout the country had issued for North Korean workers between 2010 and 2015: a total of 1,972.
It said during the last seven years there had been 377 inspections of North Koreans' work status in Poland — 77 of these found instances of irregular employment, meaning workers did not have the required permits.
Its inspections also found violations of labor rights including workers being deceived about the conditions of their employment and being denied the right to take vacations or rest between shifts.
North Koreans finishing their 13 hour shifts at a building site in the Warsaw region. Screengrab from VICE film
The International Labour Organization defines forced labor as "situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities."
The deputy director of Poland's government agency responsible for foreign workers in the Warsaw region, Jacqueline Sánchez-Pyrc, was clear. "Without doubt, there are signs of [forced labor]," she said. "And we are not the only ones getting these signs."
But she told us it was not an issue for which her agency was responsible. "All we can do is report such things to lawmakers, right?" she said. "To request that they work on a solution to clean up the situation."
'An isolated group that doesn't take advantage of their right to move freely within our country'
Sánchez-Pyrc was unable to tell us why work permits continued to be issued to North Koreans despite evidence of forced labor; she was also unable to tell us how many permits her department had issued, as the database currently in use records both North and South Koreans simply as "Koreans."
In an interview with the Polish edition of Newsweek in November last year, the country's border police described the situation as follows: "[The North Korean laborers] are an isolated group that doesn't take advantage of their right to move freely within our country, and all activities... could only be undertaken... in the presence of an appointed representative who permanently resides in Poland and who acts as a minder."
A spokesperson from Poland's immigration authority told VICE that asylum was granted to a North Korean who fled while working in Poland in 2015, but provided no further details.
Kim Seung-cheol escaped during a work assignment in Russia in 1999, though sources who spoke to VICE upon condition of anonymity claimed no more than 50 out of every 50,000 North Koreans who work abroad successfully flee. According to Kim, the secret police visit the families of disobedient workers and he told VICE that his son and mother were deported and then died shortly after he fled his employment. "My whole family was destroyed," he said.
'I would probably say they come very close to being slaves'
Breuker is clear the North Koreans are working under duress. "It's definitely forced labor as far as I can tell. Whether these people can be considered slaves, that's a difficult question to answer — I would probably say they come very close to being slaves," he said. "You can't really speak of voluntary labor. Everybody wants to go out of North Korea. How much worse can things be outside of the country? In my mind, there is no voluntary action involved there. You try to survive and you sign up to go abroad."
In January 2015, Dutch member of the European Parliament (MEP) Kati Piri asked the European Commission if it was aware of any agreements between a EU member state and North Korea that included the leasing of laborers, and if it had taken steps to improve the situation of North Korean forced laborers in Europe. The commission replied that North Koreans were working in the EU and subject to the laws of their respective country of residence; forced labor is prohibited in all EU member states, it pointed out.
Eight months later Piri asked the EU Commission if it had data on the EU companies hiring North Koreans, of which there were 800 in Poland according to Piri's information. The response was sobering: "The commission holds no records on companies in the EU employing third-country nationals."
Not only is the commission apparently turning a blind eye to the reality of North Korean labor in the EU, it is also providing financial assistance to companies benefiting from it.
'It would be absolutely scandalous for an EU member state to behave in this way'
Research by Leiden University has found that between 2010 and 2015 the Crist and Nauta shipyards have received more than 70 million euros ($79.2 million) in loans or subsidies originating from the European Regional Development Fund — some of which has been investigated by the commission for being given unlawfully.
Thomas Händel, a German MEP who is chair of the EU Parliamentary Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, and a member of the EU delegation for relations with the countries of Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said if what VICE had established was correct, the commission must investigate.
"It shouldn't actually be possible. We have clear UN and ILO conventions against slavery, which have, to my knowledge, also been ratified by Poland," he said. "In which case, it would be absolutely scandalous for an EU member state to behave in this way."
Follow Christian Vonscheidt on Twitter: @vonscheidt
Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @missmbc
Ruby Morrigan contributed to this report.