The UN is to investigate reports that an estimated 20,000 North Korean citizens have been shipped around the world effectively to work as “slave labourers” – including to build the 2022 World Cup facilities in Qatar.
China, Russia and the Middle East have reportedly received tens of thousands of workers from Kim Jong-un’s secretive state, and a UN official said they were being used “to acquire foreign currencies”.
NK Watch, a Seoul-based rights group, has previously put the number of North Korean workers in 40 other countries around the world at more than 100,000, and said they earned $3 billion (£2 billion) a year for Pyongyang.
Speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week, special rapporteur Marzuki Darusman said the North Korean government should be held responsible for the torture, rape and abduction of 200,000 people since the 1950s.
And he said his inquiries would now turn to the “bonded labourers” working for the profit of Kim Jong Un’s government.
Referring to the workers after the meeting, Mr Darusman told reporters: “It has now emerged more and more visibly and therefore it is time to address the matter in a way that clarifies the real situation.”
He said reports of the workers’ poor pay and long working hours meant they could be described as “bonded labourers or slave labourers”, and added: “A sizeable number are working in the Middle East also. These workers are being used to acquire foreign exchange, for example.”
According to a report in the Guardian last year, North Korean workers on World Cup projects in Qatar receive as little as 10 per cent of their salaries when they go home.
One worker at a construction site in central Doha told the newspaper: “We are here to earn foreign currency for our nation.”
Mr Darusman said the bulk of his early estimate of 20,000 North Korean workers abroad were based in China, and the human rights investigator reiterated a request to visit China to investigate.
Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said disputes on human rights should be resolved through talks.
He said in Beijing: “China hopes the international community can fairly and objectively view North Korea's human rights situation and pay attention to the difficulties and challenges North Korea faces in its social and economic development and provide more constructive assistance.”
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