Project summary

“I’ve read stories of slave owners who were very generous. They didn’t keep them in shackles, they didn’t whip the slaves, they built schools and churches for them, free housing, free food, free everything. It’s wrong. No matter how nice you make it look, it’s wrong.”

You can’t regulate child labor. You can’t regulate slavery. Some things are just wrong.

(Michael Moore, documentary maker)

Michael Moore is right. Slavery is wrong. And slavery cannot be regulated. And still we do regulate it. Not only in far-flung corners of the world where, or so we imagine, the benefits of the Enlightenment have not yet reached, but also in the middle of the European Union. A very particular form of legal slavery is being regulated at this very moment it is made to conform to a corpus of rules and laws, whose very essence is being warped in the process, even if their legal contents allow this.[1]

Driven by the daily repression visited upon them by the state, by hunger, desperation or by a complete lack of alternatives, hundreds of thousands of North Korean labourers leave their country to earn their state money abroad.[2] Even if these labourers chose to go abroad themselves, it is doubtful whether this can be seen as a voluntary act, given the state-caused lack of credible alternatives and the impossibility of refusing anything the state tells its citizens to do. Abroad, these North Koreans find themselves part of large teams of workers outsourced to large-scale building or logging projects, forced to undertake the most dangerous and punishing tasks, usually those that are understandably shunned by workers of other nationalities. Working conditions are bad to the extent of lethal accidents happening frequently. If wages are paid, it is at the very most 10-20% of the agreed wage (which is already significantly lower than workers of other nationalities receive), because the lion’s share goes directly to the North Korean state. For DPRK labourers abroad, there is no recourse, no appeal and no way out of this situation. Refusal of work or attempts at escape are punished harshly: the dependants of the offending labourer who remain in the DPRK suffer as much under this punishment as the labourer himself.

The lack of choice, the physical, legal and mental coercion, and the lack of remuneration combine to make DPRK labour abroad a modern-day equivalent to slavery, under which workers are not bought and sold, but leased and hired, equally reluctant, equally without choice. Due to the organizing entity being a state (the internationally recognized state of the DPRK), the whole enterprise is covered with a veneer of legality and respectability, but as Michael Moore says, ‘you can’t regulate slavery.’ EU member states offer the DPRK a platform to find financial profit in the exploitation of its own citizens as modern-day slaves under the guise of legitimate business dealings.

This proposal is an endeavour to stop regulating slavery in the EU and in doing so, creating a case that may be exported across the borders of the EU, putting a stop to the cynical and large-scale exploitation of North Korean labourers abroad and improving the dire human rights situation of North Koreans. It aims to do so by integrating:

  1. an understanding of the workings of the North Korean state system
  2. attaching relevance and significance to testimonies and experiences of North Korean exiles (and explicitly not merely as data or as furnishers of data, but as experts with inside knowledge)[3]
  3. the appliance of EU law and regulations with regard to employment and human rights in the EU on the DPRK’s expatriate work force in the EU

At the same time, it is undeniably so that the human rights discourses in general and the one on North Korea in particular have been hijacked by political pressure groups or by discourses that could more properly be characterized as neo-colonial if not in name, then at least in terms of content and inherited arguments.[4] The ways in which discourses about the North Korean human rights situation are continuously and structurally re-appropriated with covert (and sometimes overt) political purposes merit investigation. So does the distorting influences these processes exercise upon any research into NK human rights and subsequent (lack of) international policy. This paper, however, will stop at a short introduction of a research project in its early stages of, one that deals with North Korean human rights abuses in an international context, while trying to link these abuses to systemic necessities of the North Korean state.

[1] See K. Bales, “Expendable People: Slavery in the Age of Globalization,” Journal of International Affairs 53.2 (2000), p. 463; S. Miers, “Contemporary Forms of Slavery,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 34.3 (2000), p. 724.

[2] A current estimate puts the number of North Korean overseas laborers at between 40,000 to 60,000 at this moment. See Yoon Yoe-sang and Lee Sung-ju, Human Rights and North Korea’s Overseas Laborers: Dilemmas and Policy Challenges (Seoul: 2015).

[3] Both those who were part of the export labor and those whose experiences make them eminently suited to analyse the DPRK system’s workings. It is explicitly not the intention of this project to merely use exile testimony and experiences as data points only and to discount the valuable contributions that can be made by incorporating the vantage points of the exiled North Korean community in analysing and understanding the DPRK.

[4] See for example D. Chandler, ‘The Ideological (Mis)use of Human Rights’, in Human Rights: Politics and Practice, edited by M. Goodhart (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 113-129; J. Donnelly, ‘The Relative Universality of Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly 29 (2007), pp. 281-306; T. Farer, ‘The Interplay of Domestic Politics, Human Rights and US Foreign Policy’, in Wars on Terrorism and Iraq: Human Rights, Unilateralism and US Foreign Policy, edited by T. Weiss, M. Crahan, J. and Goering (London, Routledge, 2004), pp. 29-60; M. Ignatieff, Human Rights: Politics and Idolatry (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2001); idem, ‘The Attack on Human Rights’, Foreign Affairs 80 (2001), pp. 102-116; D. Kennedy, ‘The International Human Rights Movement: Part of the Problem?’ in the European Human Rights Law Review 15 (2001), pp. 101-126.

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