North Korea’s dictator sells forced labourers all over the world to provide him with foreign currency – even to Poland, right in the middle of the EU
The Polish village of Piotrowice is an idyll of cottages and flower gardens, so sleepy that you would like to knock on one of the doors and take a nap inside. If it weren’t for the secret that gives pensioner Adam Walewski no peace. Adam usually knows exactly what is going on in his village of 600 people, about 30 kilometres south of Warsaw. The only thing he hasn’t been able to find out is what the mysterious Asians are up to who work in the fields of tomato farmer Tomasz Kociszewski. Adam, who does not want to read his real name in the newspaper out of caution, is not alone in his curiosity; many in the village puzzle over what is going on behind the high walls of the tomato farm. When they talk about it, they often say, „It’s like a labour camp.“
Now, one could dismiss Adam and the other villagers as overzealous citizens who have nothing better to do than meddle in a neighbour’s affairs. If there were not this terrible suspicion: that the workers on Kociszewski’s farm are North Korean forced labourers.
It is well known that North Korea sends its citizens abroad for forced labour. The issue has been raised again and again, by the United Nations, by human rights groups and by escaped North Koreans who have themselves been forced to work. North Korean workers cut down trees in Siberia and China, build houses and roads in Kuwait and Oman, toil in Libya and Angola.
But in Poland? A country in the middle of the EU?
Adam is a man of about 65, he wears a brown, washed-out sweater and rides a bicycle through the village that is so rusty it would probably be safer to walk. Adam is retired, Adam has time. And so he has made his investigations into the tomato farmer Kociszewski, who is Adam’s neighbour and whom he calls a „good acquaintance“, in order to „spy on him a bit“.
Adam can’t remember exactly when he first saw the mysterious workers in Kociszewski’s tomato field. The field is a little outside, beyond Kociszewski’s greenhouses, which are surrounded by high walls. It is fenced in with barbed wire, and in front of it is a lonely porta-potty. The Asians, says Adam, walk across Kociszewski’s field in rows of two or three, sometimes coming in larger groups to pick tomatoes. „They are very young, and most of them are women,“ Adam says.
„No one knows where the workers come from,“ says a neighbour of the tomato farm.
Adam has tried to count them from his field, „but they move too fast, it’s impossible to keep track.“ Maybe there are 50, maybe 60. Where do they come from, why do they work here in Piotrowice, and how much do they earn? Adam says he has asked Kociszewski, the tomato farmer, all this again and again. „I don’t want to talk about it,“ he answered each time. So Adam interviewed the young men who used Kociszewski’s septic tank.
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clean. „It’s all top secret,“ they replied. „If we talk, we’ll lose our jobs.“
Adam says the young Asians are always on foot, „and they never move alone“. You hardly ever see them in the village and never in restaurants, „every day a delivery service brings them food“.
What Adam says is confirmed by other neighbours of the tomato farmer Kociszewski. For example, the lady in a smock who works in the village’s corner shop. Twice a group of young women came into her shop. „They didn’t know Polish, they just pointed with their fingers,“ she says. They bought large quantities of ice cream. That summer it was very hot, more than 30 degrees, which means it was even more than 60 degrees in the greenhouses. They worked anyway. They slaved on Saturdays, sometimes on Sundays.“ This neighbour also uses the term „labour camp“, and it is a word that few Poles would just say. „No one knows where the workers come from,“ says another neighbour.
According to Indonesian lawyer Marzuki Darusman, who is the UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur in charge of investigating human rights violations in North Korea, more than 50,000 North Koreans are currently working all over the world, dispatched by their government, mainly on construction sites and in the mining, timber and textile industries. Most of their salary is withheld by the North Korean government, which urgently needs foreign currency because its „financial and economic situation“ is „very difficult“ due to international sanctions, says the UN expert.
In October last year, his team published a report according to which the regime earned 1.2 to 2.3 billion US dollars a year by exploiting its citizens. The workers do not know their contracts, sometimes have to work up to 20 hours a day and are under constant surveillance by North Korean security guards who threaten them with draconian punishments if they dare to complain about their working conditions. The forced labourers are employed by companies in the host country, which, according to Darusman, „become accomplices to forced labour“. According to UN findings, most North Koreans are employed in China and Russia, but there are also workers in at least 15 other countries in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. And just in Poland.
The UN report refers to research by the Asan Institute, a think tank in Seoul, South Korea. According to Asan, North Korea first sent workers abroad in 1967, to the then Soviet Union, and since then the programme has been steadily expanded. The North Koreans would not only be exploited abroad, they would also have to bring foreign currency to North Korea as „mules“, as bank transfers are restricted by international sanctions. There is little knowledge about the workers in Poland. „As far as we know, there are no North Korean forced labourers who have fled Poland, so our knowledge of their working conditions is limited,“ says Go Myong-Hun of the Asan Institute. Only one thing is certain, he says: „All North Koreans working abroad are exploited by their regime.“
The regime in North Korea withholds up to 90 per cent of wages
Asan people have researched the anatomy of this system and found patterns that, for them, clearly point to the fact of exploitation: According to them, the workers do not sign individual contracts with the foreign companies, their labour is managed by a North Korean state enterprise that sends them abroad. And the salary is not transferred directly to the workers, but to this very company. The regime then keeps up to 90 percent of the money. A 2008 „Trafficking in Persons Report“ by the US government came to similar conclusions. And also on the US list is: Poland.
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Already in August 2013, the magazine Newsweek Polska had reported on the farm of the tomato farmer Kociszewski. The magazine had asked in Mazovia, Poland’s largest region, who makes the applications that have to be approved in order for a foreigner to work in Poland. The article said „most of the applications came from Kociszewski’s agricultural group as well as the Pyongyang Horticulture Office, a Korean company that helps place workers with Tomasz Kociszewski“. In 2006, journalist Mikołaj Chrzan uncovered another case: It involved North Korean welders in a Gdansk shipyard.
The Polish authorities are aware that North Koreans work in Poland, they approved the work permit applications. The cooperation between the two countries has a history; they were once socialist brother countries. Today, the Polish government is irritatingly inactive. True, a spokesman for the authority investigating the circumstances under which the twenty or so North Korean welders were employed at the Gdansk shipyard later described them as „criminal“. But Kazimierz Kuberski, then deputy labour minister, said in 2007, „It is criminal. But we are helpless.“ A Foreign Ministry spokesman then promised that his agency would look into the matter. But then nothing happened. The North Korean embassy in Warsaw showed no reaction anyway.
Time to pay a visit to the tomato farmer Kociszewski. His farm is a huge facility, as big as a factory, rising in the fields behind Piotrowice. A 1.70-metre-high fence conceals a multi-storey office building with brown-glazed windows. The gate is locked, there is neither a bell nor a door sign. Only the advertisement of a provider of security services: Solid Security.
If a worker flew, his whole family was punished – and taken to a labour camp.
Solid Security has obviously done a good job, also with the greenhouses next door, which are surrounded by a concrete wall more than two metres high. Ripening tomatoes here apparently requires one thing above all: secrecy. The place seems deserted, not a soul to be seen. After a long wait, a truck comes to a halt in front of the gate, he is here to pick up tomatoes, the driver says, quickly we slip through the gate with him. A young woman steps out of the office building. She says, „There is no one here. I can’t give out any information.“ The bosses are out of town, she says. And then? „They won’t be there next week either.“ And the following week? „They have to sort through documents and won’t be available.“ And then? „They’re busy.“ Is it possible to call? „We don’t give out phone numbers.“ Can you write? „We don’t give out email addresses either.“ Could they kindly give a contact person? „We don’t. The boss certainly doesn’t want to be bothered by you on this matter.“ She didn’t know what the matter was, did she? „In no matter. Goodbye.“
The gate closes.
Walking along the outside of the wall, you can peer through slits and see the greenhouses, tomatoes in all degrees of ripeness, green, yellow and red. Once around the whole huge area, through field and mire, a snake hisses past. Only at one small spot is the wall broken through, a work jacket hangs on a fence there.
A green Toyota drives along the dirt road, two men, East Asians, sit in it. They are dressed fashionably, perhaps the security guards? We wave, they stop, we walk towards them, they drive on quickly.
Through the cracks we can make out a one-storey yellow house, benches and a Hollywood swing,
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in front of a kind of pond. Actually, it would be quite idyllic here if it weren’t for this high wall. If it weren’t for another high, firmly locked gate, without a bell or sign, covered with screens. Suddenly, where the work jacket was hanging a moment ago, a girl is standing, hosing down the glass windows of the greenhouse with a garden hose. She is about 20 years old, her hair is tied back in a ponytail under a cap, she is wearing rubber boots, jeans and a T-shirt with the cartoon character Tweety on it. Above it is written: „Happy Girl, Sweet Girl“. The girl does not hear us coming. When she hears our Korean greeting, she flinches. She turns around. Unfortunately, that’s all our Korean is good for, so we try Chinese, Japanese, English, Polish. She remains silent. When she sees the camera, she grabs the water hose and splashes us.
Who is this girl? How is she doing on the tomato farm?
We will not find out. But at least we can talk to former North Korean forced labourers who escaped from other places – and can therefore talk freely about their experiences. One of them is Il Lim, 47, who was a forced labourer in Kuwait. Together with a compatriot, he travelled to Berlin. His name is Myeong Chul Ahn and he was a guard in a labour camp in North Korea. Both now live in South Korea and campaign for human rights in North Korea with the help of the non-governmental organisation NK Watch. Today, Il Lim looks like a South Korean businessman in his elegant suit and fashionable glasses, but there was a time when he looked completely different.
In 1995, Il Lim went to Kuwait to work in construction. He was not forced to do so, he wanted it badly – just like many others who applied for a job abroad. „I was given hope of earning 120 dollars a month“ – a fortune by North Korean standards. The selection process was tough, Il Lim recalls: „The authorities only take one in a hundred. Only people who are absolutely loyal to the party are allowed to leave. You must not have missed a single party meeting for five years. Of course, one must not have committed a crime, men must be married, even the stability of the marriage is checked.“ When Il Lim arrived in Kuwait, he reports, there were about 2000 North Koreans working there. For five months, he says, he worked 13 hours a day. „I got very little for it, much less than I was promised.“ The employer transferred the money to a Swiss bank, from where it went directly to the North Korean government. „The financial flows were managed by the North Korean foreman.“
Il Lim had hoped to be able to feed his family at home, it was the time of famines and the people lacked everything. But that was not to be thought of. „Our foreman said we should be happy to have so much to eat. We got three meals a day in Kuwait,“ says Il Lim. Contact with workers from other nations was strictly forbidden, he says. „Everything was fenced off with barbed wire. We were told it was for our own safety, that Kuwait was a dangerous country. Of course we believed it.“ Il Lim decided to flee anyway. „I didn’t know where to go, didn’t even know there was such a thing as a South Korean flag or what it looked like. But the circumstances were so bad, I just wanted to get out and never go back to North Korea.“
Il Lim made it to the South Korean embassy, the first North Korean forced labourer in Kuwait to do so. He is still very worried about his parents and wife. In the past, whenever a worker escaped, the whole family was punished and taken to a labour camp. „I have no way of finding out what happened to my family.“
Since Kim Jong Un came to power just over four years ago, the number of forced labourers has doubled, says Myeong Chul Ahn. „It’s a way to get around the sanctions.“ Ninety per cent of the income goes directly to Kim Jong Un, according to research by the organisation NK Watch. „He finances
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his luxurious lifestyle, he lives much more dissolutely than his father.“
The two men are not informed about the situation in Poland, but they assume that it is similar there. After all, the programme is coordinated by a central authority in Pyongyang. „There are very well-trained economic experts working there,“ says Il Lim. „In addition, there are the attachés in the individual countries who are very well informed about their economic situation and labour needs.“ North Korean workers, Il Lim believes, are very attractive to employers abroad. „We are the cheapest and hardest workers and very obedient. We don’t know any different.“
We try to get an appointment at the North Korean embassy in Warsaw to confront them with the accusations. But e-mail enquiries go unanswered, no one answers the phone. When we finally stand in front of the embassy building in Warsaw, we barely manage to get into the reception. The brown armchairs are decorated with white lace doilies, a young employee is watching a North Korean propaganda film in her reception booth. On an old brown telephone she dials the number of the embassy secretary, who promises to get back to her and is never heard from again.
A Polish diplomat, who wishes to remain anonymous, is not surprised by our reception at the North Korean embassy. Recently, he says, the embassy had invited people on the occasion of the North Korean bank holidays. „There were just a handful of people there.“ The former ambassador to Poland was a half-brother of Kim Jong Il, who served at his post for 26 years. „We never even saw him,“ says the diplomat. Never did the North Korean embassy approach Polish authorities or ministries with a request. „What they want here is a mystery to us.“
How can it be that there are North Koreans working in the middle of a European country who are suspected of being forced labourers. Why do authorities issue them work visas? What does the labour inspectorate say? How do the politicians react?
The „Foreigners‘ Affairs“ department of the prefectural office of the Mazovia region, which includes Warsaw and the village of Piotrowice, issues work permits to 50 to 60 per cent of foreign workers in Poland. The applications of the Kociszewski company also passed over the desks of this department. The largest proportion of foreign workers, 70 per cent, were Ukrainians, says deputy director Jaqueline Sánchez-Pyrcz. „North Koreans make up just one per cent of the work permits we issue here.“ There were only 202 applications in her region in 2015, compared to 194 the year before. Across Poland, 377 applications were made the previous year, according to Polish government statistics. There were hardly any rejections. Several ministries told us that they do not keep statistics on which companies employ North Koreans. Sánchez-Pyrcz says that most of them are very simple jobs in agriculture and construction. In order to approve them, her authority needs little information; it only has to be proven that no Pole is competing for such a job. She does not know what exactly the cooperation with the companies will look like, „we only take care of the permission“.
Sánchez-Pyrcz says she has no recollection of the articles in Gazeta Wyborcza and Newsweek. „They didn’t cause a big reaction. After all, we are talking about very few workers.“ You have to understand, says Sánchez-Pyrcz, how an authority works. „We can only do something when there is a complaint or a requirement from a ministry. And there was neither in this case.“
The National Labour Inspectorate is only prepared to make a written statement. In it
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it reports 17 inspections in 14 companies that employ North Koreans. The inspections were carried out over the past five years. It found a whole series of violations: In some cases, wages or overtime pay were withheld, in others workers were not allowed to take holidays. In some cases, unlawful working conditions had been found. The authorities are not prepared to have a personal discussion or at least a telephone call to clarify these points.
In Poland, the issue disappears into the shoals of bureaucracy and politics.
The Czech Republic shows that it can be done differently. Until a few years ago, North Korean workers were also employed there, mostly tailors who sewed in textile factories. In March 2006, the government in Prague heard the testimony of a certain Kim Tae San. A North Korean diplomat in Prague until he fled to South Korea in 2002, he was in charge of placing workers there. „Almost all their income,“ Kim says, „was paid directly into an account controlled by the North Korean government.“ Fifty-five per cent of the salary was deducted as a „voluntary“ contribution to North Korea, he says, with almost all of the rest going to accommodation and „voluntary“ birthday gifts for North Korea’s leader. In the end, the women were left with just 20 to 30 dollars a month. As a result of the hearing, the government in Prague decided to stop issuing visas to North Koreans.
In Poland, on the other hand, the issue disappears into the shoals of bureaucracy and politics. And civil society? When we asked, the Polish trade unions declared themselves not responsible. The construction industry and agriculture are hardly unionised anyway. Polish human rights groups also ignore the case. And the Polish branches of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and Amnesty International declare that they have never dealt with the issue. Only a small Polish foundation for construction workers‘ rights tried in 2014 to draw attention to a construction site in Wroclaw where North Koreans were working. However, they had been employed through so many different subcontractors that it was impossible to say beyond doubt who was ultimately responsible. The foundation could not do much and gave up.
At least there is still the EU, one might think. In January 2015, a Spanish Socialist MEP asked the Commission whether it knew of any agreements between an EU state and North Korea concerning the posting of workers. Whether it was doing anything to improve the situation of North Korean forced labourers?
The Commission’s answer: North Korean workers are working in the EU, according to the laws of the respective host country. Forced labour is banned in all EU member states.
In September 2015, Socialist MEPs followed up with a question: According to their information, 800 North Koreans were working in Poland. The MEPs want to know: Does the Commission have any data on companies employing these people?
In January 2016, the answer came: the Commission had no such data. Finished, done, another document, another process in a huge bureaucracy, completed.
And so it happens that in Poland, in the middle of Europe, bureaucratically correct, North Korean forced labourers have to slave away. Probably also in the tomato factory in Piotrowice.
Joint production with BARBARA PETRULEWICZ
Collaboration: FRÉDÉRIC KRUMBEIN
Published 17.3. 2016 in Die Zeit