North Korea has exported forced labor for decades, but the practice has increased under Kim Jong-un, who came into power in 2012. It is estimated that North Korean workers are employed in 45 countries throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Working primarily in construction, mining, logging and textiles, the laborers endure long hours, poor conditions, and constant – though sometimes covert – oversight from government authorities. North Korean workers are known to have died from working conditions in Russia, Poland, and Qatar, among others. In compensation for their stressful manual labor, workers receive approximately only 10 to 20 percent of their wages; North Korea is believed to generate up to $2.3 billion, by some estimates, through this exploitative practice. The income serves to circumvent economic isolation stemming from North Korea’s nuclear program and provides the regime with a cash flow to sustain itself. To prevent defection, workers are heavily vetted prior to international placement. Michael Glendinning of the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea explains, “They only select workers who are married and have children – hostage-taking essentially”; if a family member were to defect, the government could inflict punishment on its loved ones at home.
Russia and China are home to the most North Korean workers. A 2016 report by the Data Base Center for North Korean Human Rights estimated that there are 50,000 North Korean laborers in Russia, providing $120 million to the state. North Korean slave labor has a substantial presence in Russia’s construction and logging sectors, contributing to World Cup stadiums, Moscow skyscrapers, and Siberia’s timber industry. In China, North Korean workers labor in factories, process seafood, and fill labor gaps. An AP investigation in 2017 found that seafood processed by North Korean slave labor was distributed in U.S. markets, despite federal law prohibiting this practice.