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(News Focus) Calls grow for sanctions on N. Korea for labor exports

2016/02/17 11:42

SEOUL, Feb. 17 (Yonhap) -- Calls for sanctions against North Korea's exports of its workers are growing due to the need to cut off inflows of hard currency that could be used for the North's nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea has sent more than 50,000 workers abroad, mainly in China and Russia, as it seeks to obtain dollars to avert economic hardship under heavy United Nations sanctions, according to a U.N. report.

About 60 percent of such North Koreans are believed to work in the construction sector in foreign nations, while US$200 to $300 million is presumed to be sent to North Korea's regime annually, a South Korean civic group said.

"Under the Kim Jong-un regime, the North's exports of its laborers have sharply risen as its move is not banned under current U.N. resolutions," said Yoon Yeo-sang, chief director of the North Korean Human Rights Archives. "It is a good and easy way for the North to earn hard currency."

   A government official said the number of the North's overseas workers has sharply increased to around 50,000 to 60,000 in recent years from some 20,000 in 2010.

The North's recent nuclear test and long-range rocket launch are raising calls for the international community to tighten control of North Korea's dispatch of its workers abroad.

Seoul hit Pyongyang with its strongest non-military sanctions last week as it shut down a jointly run industrial complex in North Korea's border city of Kaesong in response to the North's provocations.

Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo said Sunday that 70 percent of the money that flowed into the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North was funneled into the ruling Workers' Party of Korea to bankroll its weapons development.

South Korea provided around $560 million in cash to North Korea in total since the two sides opened the factory zone in 2004.

President Park Geun-hye said Tuesday that Seoul's decision to shut it down was aimed at cutting off a major revenue source for North Korea to prevent it from advancing its nuclear and missile programs.

Experts said that North Korea may send more workers abroad to make up for hard currency shortages stemming from the closure of the complex.

"It would not be easy for North Korea to sharply raise the number of such people as international criticism has increased on the North due to its severe human rights violations against its overseas workers," said a source familiar with North Korean affairs. "So the North may tinker with the way it sends its workers abroad and receives money."

   The U.N. Security Council is working on a fresh resolution for stronger sanctions over the North's nuclear test on Jan. 6.

Some experts said that the U.N. should come up with sanctions against North Korea's trade of non-goods, such as exports of the North's workers beyond the current sanctions banning the North's trades of specified goods.

Even without sanctions to be imposed, the North's goods trade is expected to be weighed down due to China's economic slowdown and falling oil prices, according to a report by South Korea's state-run Korea Development Institute.

"But the North's trade of non-goods, including exports of its labor, has been on the rise since the first quarter of 2015, and it is likely to further grow," it added. "There is no option for North Korea to earn dollars other than an expansion of non-goods trade."

   But others said that it would not be easy for the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution banning the North's exports of its workers as China and Russia, the main destinations for the North's laborers, are likely to exercise their vetoes against such a move.

Instead, the international community can call on countries utilizing North Korean workers to restrain employment of North Koreans or improve working conditions, analysts said.

"The government is seeking to explore ways on how to deal with this issue through cooperation with the global community," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said at a press briefing Tuesday.