Years of cruel and incompetent rule has left North Korea’s economy in ruin. Nicknamed the “hermit kingdom” because of its isolation – both politically and geographically, the term is often used by North Koreans themselves to describe the pre-modern country. Closed off from the rest of the world and shrouded in mystery, the country is notoriously difficult to get information on. Its sanctions-hit economy is said to operate on a number of different levels, including a black market, with the government not even releasing official trade statistics. So how does it make its money?

The answer is simple: export and enslave its people. After a yearlong inquiry in which thousands of North Korean refugees and others were interviewed outside the country it was revealed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva last month that 80,000 to 120,000 North Koreans toil in the country’s prison camps. Underfed and overworked, many of them are held without any form of due process. Tens of thousands of other North Koreans slave away in far off and exotic lands around the world in a multitude of industries.

The North Korean government has so far managed this exportation by “enlisting” workers for overseas assignments and then signing bilateral agreements with foreign governments in such places as Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Hundreds are believed to be currently working in Mongolia and about 21,000 in Russia. Usually the workers’ salary is paid directly to the local North Korean embassy. What happens to the funds after that is anyone’s guess. And exactly how much they receive for this life of travel, excitement and adventure is also a mystery.

In one instance, 100 North Korean women have been found working in a run-down Mongolian factory producing high-end goods for such well known UK brands as Edinburgh Woollen Mill (EWM). In another, thousands of North Koreans are working as lumber jacks in remote locations in Siberia. It has been reported that the workers get just two days off per year and are under constant pressure and threats to meet production quotas.

According to the CIA Factbook – which collects information for U.S. government agencies, North Korea’s economy is one of the world’s “most centrally directed and least open” and faces “chronic economic problems”. “Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of under investment, shortages of spare parts, and poor maintenance. Large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption” they said.

When the country detonated a nuclear weapon for test in 2006 and 2009 it was subject to international sanctions, and burdened with an antiquated economy and almost no industrial base. North Korea has been known for its exports of minerals, metallurgical products, manufactures including armaments, textiles, but less so for its exploitation and exports of its people.

Surely the government should now be held accountable for what an investigative panel has called a history of crimes against humanity and egregious human rights abuse? Nations should rise up and determine which of them stand with famine and totalitarianism, and which stand on the side of human rights and justice.


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