One and a half dollars a month

North Korean slaves built ships for Dutch companies

Leiden researchers have discovered that, working in appalling conditions, North Korean forced labourers built Dutch boats at shipyards in Poland. “So that’s how they fund missiles for the regime.”

By Anoushka Kloosterman They work hard, those North-Koreans. They’re disciplined and don’t make mistakes. The janitor of a shipyard in the Polish town of Szczecin knows why: “Otherwise their families in Korea get their asses kicked.”

They start work early, he says, because they have to live at the shipyard. They all do; they can’t choose where they’d like to live. They are not permitted to speak to strangers; they receive only a fraction of their salaries, work long hours and have some time off just once a month. The residents of the little town describe how, sometimes, workers would be “marched past” by an officer; now, they only see a car with blacked-out windows drive to the shipyard. “Perhaps they march underground now”, one resident jokes.

A Korean labourer, who spoke to journalists in deepest secret, revealed the other side of the story: “On Sundays, all I do is drink. Everyone drinks. What else can we do? We’re an isolated group.” He misses his family but can’t ring them: Pyongyang blocks all contact.

At the Szczecin shipyard, which belongs a company called Partner, they have been building ships – at least 36 – for Dutch companies for years, according to the report People for Profit by a Leiden research group of which Remco Breuker, Professor of Korean Studies, is in charge. He received the unadulterated images from journalists who had been investigating the living conditions of North Korean migrant workers for the documentary Dollar Heroes.

“That people were killing themselves with drink because they can’t deal with it”, is one of the things Breuker didn’t know. Their desperation is expressed in other things too: at Polish tomato nurseries, fights between female labourers are encouraged by the management”, he says. “To relieve the frustration. When I hear colleagues say that these people are all happy slaves, I think: just try it for one day – you’d be in tears. So would I, for that matter.”

Partner delivered a total of 36 ships to Dutch customers, including dredging firm Boskalis, who bought three ships. In some cases, like that of the Arctic Dawn, Dutch shipbuilders supervised the construction of the ships in Poland, the report says. “The local craftsmen are supervised by Dutch ship-building experts.”

Illegal job agency

“It’s the largest illegal job agency in the world”, says Breuker. North Korea needs money, but has trouble acquiring it due to international sanctions and the country’s isolated status so the country sends labourers to work all over the world; Breuker estimates 150 thousand are involved. They work on ordinary work visas and can work legally on paper – even in the European Union – but their salaries are diverted via Russia and China, where the North Korean regime has bank accounts, to Pyongyang. Sometimes, the money is taken out of the bank accounts in Poland and sent by courier to North Korea, bags at a time. Diplomats smuggle cash in their luggage; they can’t be checked due to their diplomatic immunity.

Can the money flow be stopped? “Anything is possible, but it will take an awfully long time”, says Breuker. It is more effective to tackle the regime’s finances. “That is precisely what’s happening now; if we increase the measures, they’ll talk.”

The workers sometimes receive only a fraction of their salary, or nothing at all. “They didn’t pay me more than one and a half dollars as a monthly wage for the first three months”, recalls one labourer in Dollar Heroes. He works at another Polish shipyard, Crist Shipyard, where he worked on the construction of a Dutch cruise ship until 2016. The highest monthly salary he ever received was 180 dollars. “Even when I worked thirteen hours a day, and at night.” After three years and four months, he had earned 2,500 dollars, of which he sent a total of 1,600 to his wife, left behind in North Korea. On average, he could spend 27 Euros a month.

Burnt alive

Crist Shipyard is, for that matter, the shipyard where, in 2014, welder Chŏn Kyŏngsu died. When his clothes caught fire, he was burnt alive because of the bad insulation.

Boskalis claims to nothing about the deployment of North Korean manpower for the construction of its ships. If they had known, they would have cancelled the collaboration, CEO Peter Berdowski ensured BNR Nieuwsradio on Tuesday. Other companies deny any knowledge either: Johan Schouwenaar, the head of Royal Bodewes, said in Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad that he had visited the shipyard but had not seen any North Koreans. They have not done any business with Partner since last year.

“In the grimmest scenario, they really didn’t know anything about it”, Breuker responds. “That shows how close to home it all is. We need to realise what it actually means. Ultimately, we’re funding North Korea’s missiles, to put it bluntly. We must reconsider everything, including the sanctions. If this continues, they’ll have absolutely no effect.”

He’s hoping that the companies will be “absolutely honest” and that suitable measures will be implemented. “They must come up with something to solve this problem and prevent it happening, and then make amends. If it turns out that the North Koreans were not receiving their proper wages, and the companies feel responsible, those companies should immediately put money aside for the labourers. We need to appeal to the companies’ social conscience. I think they’d be willing to listen.”

And then the money ran out

The report, which was published on Monday, is the second paper on North Korean forced labour in Europe. The first report, published in 2016, already stirred up plenty of discussion in the European Parliament. The day the second report was published, questions were asked in the Dutch Parliament. It has attracted plenty of interest.
Is there more to come?

Well, not for a bit, says Breuker. “Write this in big letters: there’s no more money. We thought we could apply for a European subsidy, but we didn’t even make it through to the preliminary rounds. We’re not even eligible, because the subject is North Korea: you must meet all kinds of conditions, that you work with partners in that country, for instance, and we can’t do that. Or it’s the wrong regional concentration. There’s always something. I really don’t have a bad track record when it comes to subsidies, but this has absolutely no chance at all.”

The money for the current study came from the Leiden Asia Centre. “But that will only last another two or three weeks”, Breuker guesses. “Then it’s game over. It’s one of the reasons why people never succeed in exposing the state of human rights in North Korea, especially forced labour. There simply isn’t the political will or interest.”

Actually, as far as he is concerned, the study has scarcely begun. “There is so much more to map out. We need to investigate matters in China and Russia, and in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. And what I really, really want to do – and that’s difficult as a professor, because it means I’ll become a dreary activist – we really need to talk about the people themselves. We’re only talking about states and companies, but what do we do about the people? Do we send them back? I would really love to discuss this matter with the experts.”

Breuker still hopes he’ll get a grant of some kind. “I haven’t lost hope. This has provoked so much emotion, I think we might still have a chance. But I’d like to say, very clearly and very loudly, that someone must come to our aid.”

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