Slave labor in 2005 wears a Korean face

Pyongyang ships workers abroad under house arrest and takes most of their wages

December 28, 2005|By BARBARA DEMICK | BARBARA DEMICK,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ZELEZNA, Czech Republic -- The old schoolhouse stands alone at the end of a quiet country road flanked by snow-flecked wheat fields. From behind the locked door comes the clatter of sewing machines and, improbably enough, the babble of young female voices speaking Korean.

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 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 sweat pants 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 new member of the European Union is something of a throwback to before the 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 regime living off counterfeiting, drug trading and weapons sales. Experts estimate that 10,000 to 15,000 North Koreans work abroad on behalf of their government in jobs ranging from nursing to construction. 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 salaries of the women here, about $260, the Czech minimum wage, are deposited directly in an account controlled by the North Korean government, which gives them 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.

"This is 21st-century slave labor," said Kim Tae San, a former official of the North Korean Embassy in Prague. He helped to 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 percent was taken off the top as a "voluntary" contribution to the cause of socialist revolution. The women had to buy and cook their own food. Additional sums were deducted for accommodations, transportation and extras such 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, they received $20 to $30 a month. They spent less than $10 of it on food, buying only the cheapest local macaroni.

Most of the women come from families deemed sufficiently loyal to the regime that their daughters will not defect. With salaries at state-owned companies 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. But the country has to employ about 200,000 guest workers, largely to replace Czechs who have left to seek higher wages in Western Europe.

Czech officials say the North Koreans are model workers. "They are so quiet you would hardly know they are here," said Zdenek Belohlavek, labor division director for the district of Beroun, which encompasses Zelezna and Zebrak, a larger town where about 75 North Korean seamstresses stitch underwear.

Belohlavek displayed a thick dossier of photos and vital statistics of the women, most of whom were born between 1979 and 1981. All their paperwork is in perfect order and the factories appear to be in full compliance with the law, he said.

Belohlavek acknowledged that labor investigators had communicated with the workers only through an interpreter from the North Korean Embassy. He said they were troubled by the women's apparent lack of freedom.

"They have guards. I don't know why. It's not like anybody would steal them," Belohlavek said.

Another labor investigator, Jirina Novakova, who has visited the factories, also complained that the women's salaries were deposited into a single bank account in the name of one of the North Korean Embassy interpreters.

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