Reports say that North Korea has deployed more than 300 undercover security officers around the world to spy on government personnel and laborers to prevent them from defecting.
A former North Korean security official who has since defected to South Korea has lately been explaining to reporters how this was done.
Global human rights agencies say the development worsens the picture of the real conditions of North Korean workers abroad, as such overseas operatives are engaged in human rights abuses.
This is related to their monitoring of activities of North Korean diplomats, government officials and the tens of thousands of laborers who are sent abroad to raise cash for the monarchy-cum-communist regime of Kim Jong-un.
The North Korean defector disclosed activities of the Ministry of State Security, the totalitarian state’s spy and security arm last month.
While for security purposes South Korean media familiar with the report did not wish to divulge the former official’s identity, there was recently a flurry of activity around a high profile defection.
It is that of a former deputy ambassador in the North Korean embassy in Britain, Thaek Yong-ho, who is at least among former regime officials who would know extensively how spying activities are organized.
MSS operatives are engaged in human rights abuses such as extorting money from overseas North Koreans, kidnappings, beatings and torture, the former official said.
“In one case, a North Korean student in France identified only as “Han” attempted to defect in November 2014 after his family was purged by the Kim regime. Before he could defect, the student was abducted by MSS agents and was about to be forcibly sent back to North Korea when he managed to escape,” he said.
Another case in Europe two years ago involved MSS agents who tried to forcibly repatriate the child of a North Korean diplomat. That bid also failed. Many other North Koreans, however, have been sent to die in prison labor after attempting to defect.
The reports say that most of the MSS agents abroad operate under diplomatic cover in embassies and UN agency posts. An estimated 100 MSS agents are devoted to monitoring the more than 50,000 North Koreans working overseas, mainly in construction sites in China, Russia, the Middle East and at least three countries in Africa, identified as Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia.
The first two have around 200 North Korean contract labourers and the latter has around 100 of such labourers. Several other countries harbor a variety of other Pyongyang interests.
While exports of labor have been there for decades in the monarcho-communist state, such exports have been rising under youthful supreme leader Kim Jong-un since late 2011 as international sanctions tightened, to starve the regime of hard currency.
The number of MSS agents posted overseas also has increased in recent years as more North Koreans think of defecting, having lost hope that the regime would change any time soon.
It is not surprising therefore that North Koreans working abroad find themselves being increasingly subjected to extortion of their wages, beatings, forced repatriation and punishment for contacts with foreigners.
A North Korean construction worker in Qatar told a South Korean newspaper last month that workers are starved while being forced to engage in labor-intensive construction work for three-year stints.
The MSS also routinely extorts a major portion of North Korean workers’ paychecks, which can range from $150 per month to $1,000. Workers’ death benefits also are extorted by the agents, the newspaper noted.
Details about the rights abuses by MSS agents come after the U.S. government this month imposed more sanctions on Pyongyang for human rights abuses. The Treasury Department slapped sanctions on seven North Koreans and two agencies Jan. 11 before the new US presidency was inaugurated, Jan. 20.
It said MSS engages in torture and inhumane treatment of detainees during regular interrogation and in the country’s network of political prison camps, on the basis of the Treasury Department statement in announcing the sanctions.
“This inhumane treatment includes beatings, forced starvation, sexual assault, forced abortions, and infanticide,” the department underlined, where infanticide especially comes up where a migrant worker begets a child or is pregnant with a foreigner. A common example is neighbor China, since it hosts thousands of exported laborers routinely.
North Korea’s lucrative labor exports have been coming under pressure as world human rights groups say workers abroad raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the Kim Jong Un regime and seeks that countries put a stop to the practice.
An example is inauspicious Far East locations where Western media prying agents aren’t extensively at work, but presence of North Korean exported labor is well documented.
In Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, more than 1,000 North Koreans work in factories, construction sites. The U.S. State Department’s 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report underlines overseas labor contracts concentrated in Russia, including the Russian Far East, in logging, construction and agriculture.
“The most disturbing elements of the report involve descriptions of substandard living conditions for North Korean laborers in almost complete isolation from the local populations, virtual slave-labor conditions at the workplace, absence of safety standards or injury treatment or compensation, forced contributions from labor salaries for their own upkeep, and virtually no holidays or time to rest,” a write up in the South Korea newspaper summed up the US departmental report.
“These conditions reveal the lengths to which the DPRK is willing to go in its export of labor to preserve isolation of workers from the outside world.
The net effect of these efforts, as the preface of the report describes, is to replicate ‘little North Korea’ abroad. North Korean exports its labor standards along with laborers, and increasingly places them under the same secret service surveillance as at home.