December 28, 2005


N. Koreans Toil Abroad Under Grim Conditions
: Women provide badly needed labor in Czech towns and elsewhere. Pyongyang keeps a tight rein on them and takes most of their wages. (Barbara Demick, December 27, 2005, LA Times)

The elementary school closed long ago for lack of students. The entire village 20 miles west of Prague has only about 200 people.

The schoolhouse is now a factory producing uniforms. Almost all the workers are North Korean, and the women initially looked delighted to see visitors. It gets lonely working out here, thousands of miles from home. They crowded around to chat.

"I'm not so happy here. There is nobody who speaks my language. I'm so far from home," volunteered a tentative young woman in a T-shirt and sweatpants who said she was from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

But as she spoke, an older woman with stern posture and an expressionless face — a North Korean security official — passed by in the corridor. The young women scattered wordlessly and disappeared into another room, closing and bolting the door behind them.

Hundreds of young North Korean women are working in garment and leather factories like this one, easing a labor shortage in small Czech towns. Their presence in this recent member of the European Union is something of a throwback to before the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when Prague, like Pyongyang, was a partner in the Communist bloc.

The North Korean government keeps most of the earnings, apparently one of the few legal sources of hard currency for an isolated and impoverished government believed to be living off counterfeiting, drug trafficking and weapons sales. Experts estimate that there are 10,000 to 15,000 North Koreans working abroad in behalf of their government in jobs ranging from nursing to construction work. In addition to the Czech Republic, North Korea has sent workers to Russia, Libya, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and Angola, defectors say.

Almost the entire monthly salary of each of the women here, about $260, the Czech minimum wage, is deposited directly into an account controlled by the North Korean government, which gives the workers only a fraction of the money.

To the extent that they are allowed outside, they go only in groups. Often they are accompanied by a guard from the North Korean Embassy who is referred to as their "interpreter." They live under strict surveillance in dormitories with photographs of North Korea's late founder Kim Il Sung and current leader Kim Jong Il gracing the walls. Their only entertainment is propaganda films and newspapers sent from North Korea, and occasional exercise in the yard outside.

"This is 21st century slave labor," said Kim Tae San, a former official of the North Korean Embassy in Prague. He helped set up the factories in 1998 and served as president of one of the shoe factories until he defected to South Korea in 2002.

It also was Kim's job to collect the salaries and distribute the money to workers. He said 55% was taken off the top as a "voluntary" contribution to the cause of the socialist revolution. The women had to buy and cook their own food. Additional sums were deducted for accommodation, transportation and such extras as flowers for the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

The women even had to pay for the propaganda films they were forced to watch. By the time all the deductions were made, each received between $20 and $30 a month. They spent less than $10 of it on food, buying only the cheapest local macaroni.

"They try to save money by not eating," said Kim, the former embassy official. He says that his wife, who accompanied him on visits to the factory, was concerned that women's menstruation stopped, their breasts shriveled and many experienced acute constipation. "We were always trying to get them to spend more on food, but they were desperate to bring money home to their families."

Kim said that Czechs often mistook the North Korean women for convict laborers because of the harsh conditions. "They would ask the girls, 'What terrible thing did you do to be sent here to work like this?' "

In fact, the women usually come from families deemed sufficiently loyal to the government that their daughters will not defect. With salaries at state-owned firms in North Korea as low as $1 per month, the chance to work abroad for a three-year stint is considered a privilege.

Having shed its own communist dictatorship, the Czech Republic is sensitive to human rights issues. On the other hand, the country has to employ about 200,000 guest workers, largely to replace Czechs who have left to seek higher wages in Western Europe.

Just the beginning of how horribly the demographic disaster will warp societies.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 28, 2005 8:57 PM

The demographic difficulties won't produce much more warping than this, since the basic problem is NoKo, not the Czech Republic. (Although the Czechs are allowing the situation to continue).

If the women got to keep the $ 260/mo., they'd be as happy as an illegal Czech making $ 875/mo. in America - our Federal minimum wage.

[T]he chance to work abroad for a three-year stint is considered a privilege.

No kidding, since after three years of semi-starvation the women can bring home possibly thirty years' worth of NoKo wages.

If Bush promises air cover and a firm stay-out-of-it-or-get-nuked to China, I'll participate in an invasion of NoKo.

Not that such would be the smartest military option - an intensive bombing campaign would do the trick, no actual American invasion and occupation required.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 28, 2005 11:56 PM


"I'll participate in an invasion of NoKo"

I'll second that. I, too, volunteer your services.

Posted by: h-man at December 29, 2005 8:20 AM

... and after you return (provided you do), I'll attend the welcome home party.

Posted by: AllenS at December 29, 2005 9:16 AM

With support like that, victory is assured !

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at December 30, 2005 2:25 AM