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North Korea, a Modern Slave State of the 21st Century

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The U.S. Republican Party adopted its new policy platform, calling North Korea a 'slave state', on July 18, the opening day of the party's national convention.

The Republican Party's designation of North Korea as a 'slave state' seems reasonable and appropriate. Indeed, the majority of the people in the communist country live like slaves owned by the Kim family without fundamental rights as human beings.

I experienced the life of a slave 20 years ago when I was working in Kuwait as a foreign worker, so I welcome the recent designation, albeit belated.

In fact, overseas labor history of North Korea dates back to the late 1950s when the country began to send workers to Siberian logging camps in the Soviet Union (currently, Russia). Initially, offenders were sent as a means of punishment.

From the 1970s, however, people of high social classes were mobilized for overseas labor. I worked on a residential construction site in Umm al Hayman, Kuwait, from November 1996 to March 1997. An abandoned two-story school, which was raided during the Gulf War, was used as lodging for North Korean workers. There were just about 20 shabby beds in each classroom and everything was in poor condition.

The lodging was surrounded by a 2m-high barbed-wire fence, which was erected at the request of North Korean authorities to prevent any runaway. We were forced to work 15 hours a day from 7 a.m. to midnight, excluding lunch and dinner breaks, under direct sunlight of the desert and with searchlight at light. It may be hard to believe but we were only allowed to take a rest late in the afternoon every other Friday (because Friday is a holiday in Kuwait).

No one would dare leave the lodging or the construction site, especially alone, because the workers had been brainwashed by North Korean authorities in Pyongyang with words like "If you go around streets and villages in a foreign country by yourself, you could be kidnapped by South Korean agents."

What kept me going in the harsh work conditions, though, was beef soup offered with steamed rice two or three times a week. Bread was offered for lunch and noodles were offered for dinner, but the amount was not sufficient. Beef was a highly valuable food for ordinary people in North Korea, so we felt that we were privileged to eat beef soup.

We worked hard, expecting to earn $120 of the promised monthly pay and send it to family members at home. However, we could not receive any money even after a few months of labor. The manager responded to the angry workers by saying "The company is in financial trouble" or "There is no order from the party to give you a pay".

Being upset, the workers criticized the 'company', but no one blamed the 'Workers Party' of Pyongyang. They did not and could not dispraise the party, because they knew that the party was equal to the supreme leader (Kim Jong-Il at the time) and they were also afraid of further trouble.

Later, I managed to escape and visited the local UNHCR (The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) office before entering South Korea, where I heard that the foreign employer had transferred the workers' pay to North Korean authorities every month. I felt waves of anger and despair.

The North Korean regime had even extorted the promised pay of $120 after receiving $600 for individual workers. What is the overseas labor of North Korea different from the medieval slavery? The workers toiled 15 hours a day and did not receive a cent. I felt like I was just a machine forced to work without a rest and an animal fed by its master.

The North Korean regime, which has been desperately seeking foreign currency earnings for recent years, has sent 50,000-100,000 workers to a number of countries, including Russia, China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The regime earns as much as $35,000 of annual income per worker employed in Europe.

The hard-earned dollars of overseas North Korean workers are funneled to the regime in Pyongyang. The regime spends the money on maintaining the burial places of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il and purchasing luxury goods for leader Kim Jong-Un and gifts for the party officials, which is all to keep its dictatorial powers. The money is even used in the reckless nuclear and missile development that threatens the peace of Northeast Asia and the world.

The United Nations and the international community should include North Korea's overseas labor issue in sanctions against North Korea, and countries that employee North Korean workers should stop using North Korean labor, which will help prevent the communist regime from forcing its workers to work abroad. If the international community continues its effort to address this issue, North Korean workers, who are treated like modern-day slaves, will be able to live like human beings.

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Rim il, North Korean defector, is a columnist, novelist in South Korea. Born in Pyongyang, North Korea on Oct. 20, 1968. He had been slave laborer for North Korean regime in 1996. After suffering from slave laborer in Kuwait, defected to South (more...)

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