Thread on the recent North Korea "slave labor" story. It's unclear how bad the working conditions are in Dandong, China since the article is poorly sourced (relies on "claims" and anonymous "sources"), but there's good reason to believe they're not great.…
Dandong is a special economic zone (SEZ) in China, and it's where the vast majority of trade between North Korea and China happens (70-80%).…
SEZs are territories that many countries around the world that are handed over to foreign investors, where there are relaxed or fewer labor regulations in order to attract foreign capital and create jobs…
Obviously North Korea (aka DPRK) has a struggling economy because of crushing UN sanctions over its nuclear deterrent to US aggression, and needs an injection of foreign investment to help development
Every country needs trade (and especially the DPRK since only 20% of its land is arable with its significant mountainous geography), and to trade with other countries, you need foreign currency to exchange/purchase things…
The DPRK needs foreign currency in order to import necessities and create development, yet that's precisely what's there's a scarcity of. So it's not a surprise that the DPRK has a foreign labor program that sends DPRK workers overseas to earn foreign currency to send home
Are they there by force? Hard to prove a negative, but it seems that DPRK citizens are there voluntarily since this state-approved foreign labor program has been running for decades and most return home with savings from higher wages abroad…
It's not surprising to me that there would be surveillance and that these workers abroad aren't allowed to travel freely, but I don't think it's because the DPRK is evil. They have to sign up for the program, and the DPRK needs foreign reserve currencies.
Foreign labor programs aren't unique to DPRK but because most countries aren't under crushing UN sanctions, there's less of a necessity to have them send foreign currency home, so naturally, DPRK workers would realize other foreign workers don't have the same burdens they do
That may lead them to simply defect and not send their earnings and needed foreign currency home, and lead a life without the extra burdens of being part of the DPRK's foreign labor program. Some even pay bribes to go abroad, so this doesn't seem forced…
By doesn't seem forced, I mean that they aren't coerced to go abroad, but they do seem to have obligations to abide by certain conditions (such as sending foreign currency home and not defecting). This isn't special since every country has foreign work permit conditions
By not special, I mean that every country has their own conditions before issuing work permits to their citizens, and the DPRK has its own set of unique circumstances (a need for foreign currency due to crushing UN sanctions)
This video is very obnoxious, but it also clearly explains why North Korea has a foreign labor program and what motivates it:

Now that we have this context, it's quite clear that the Guardian's report is trying to smear this foreign labor program and further cut the DPRK off from foreign currency to destroy its economy even further Image
I explained here that UN sanctions on the DPRK's nuclear deterrent are illegitimate, arbitrary and hypocritical, as the DPRK withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 after being placed on the Axis of Evil hit list (testing began in 2006)…
Too long to get into here, but DPRK's nuclear deterrent has a dual purpose besides defense from US aggression. It's also meant to reduce military spending and the need for a standing army to focus more on economic development (aka byungjin, "parallel advance")
This byungjin program was declared no longer necessary after April 2018, as Kim Jong Un (KJU) announced that he wants the DPRK to focus entirely on economic development after that point to improve DPRK living conditions…
Basically, the US is punishing the DPRK for developing an effective deterrent, and is doing everything it can to prevent DPRK development, and western propagandists are trying to demonize the DPRK's few methods to survive crushing sanctions with a foreign labor program
Working conditions probably aren't ideal, or even great in SEZs like Dandong. But why does the Guardian call for enforcing sanctions instead of lifting them if their primary concern was over DPRK workers' well-being?
If you reduce sanctions, you also reduce the need for DPRK workers abroad to send foreign currency home, which would also improve their working conditions.
You could also simply call for improving the labor conditions at the SEZs instead of banning DPRK workers from earning money abroad. All the enforced sanctions and worker ban would do is drive them into unemployment, the illicit economy in the DPRK or short term (non-work visas)
But the Guardian doesn't promote these alternative solutions to improving DPRK working conditions. Instead, it calls for banning these workers instead of advocating the cessation of sanctions and improving SEZ labor conditions because it's more about demonizing the DPRK
Another thing to ask is, suppose the Guardian's claims of "slave labor" are true for the sake of argument (it's not, as it admits that DPRK workers usually *get paid* more abroad than at home). Is modern slavery unique to the DPRK? Image
South Korea actually has modern day slavery, so even if we were to accept the Guardian's characterization of the DPRK's foreign labor program being "slave labor" as true, this wouldn't mean the DPRK is exceptionally evil.

The US also has modern slavery in its penal system…
In 2018, the Guardian reported that the US has 400,000 workers living under modern slavery within the US, so why should this new Guardian report make people conclude that the DPRK is exceptionally evil?…
To conclude: the DPRK's foreign labor program isn't pretty. Its conditions are probably terrible if we compare them to Western labor standards. But I think the "slave labor" characterization is not only false, but also obscures the complexities of the DPRK's situation.

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