North Korean laborers

At a time when Warsaw is busy looking for reasons why people fleeing the Syrian war should not take refuge in Poland, the ease with which North Korean laborers have had obtaining Polish work permits is rightfully making headlines.

Photo: BRJ INC.

At 41 years old, Chŏn Kyŏngsu worked as a welder on the dry dock at the Crist Shipyards in the Polish town of Gdynia. 1 On August 29th 2014, when he was welding pipelines at the stern of a docked ship, the Polar Empress, a flame suddenly ignited his uniform and soon engulfed him. Chŏn managed to crawl out of the tank on all fours, and was helped by a Polish colleague, who tried to put out his burning clothes with water bottles and a fire extinguisher, but the flames kept reigniting themselves. 2

When they brought Chŏn to a hospital, there was little hope he would make it because he had suffered severe burns over 95% of his body. He died a day later, 4,800 miles from his birthplace in North Korea; he was later sent home in a coffin along with about 637 EUR for his family.

One year before Chŏn’s death the Polish National Labor Inspectorate (PIP) found that 29 North Koreans were working illegally at the same shipyard. They were all employed by Armex, a Polish recruiting agency, and did not have the valid permits needed to work at Crist. However, upon being shown further papers, the inspectors concluded that the workers were self-employed and, as such, were outside of their jurisdiction. Because of this, no further actions were taken: the North Koreans kept their jobs, while neither Armex nor Crist were fined. 3

It is not known whether Chŏn Kyŏngsu was one of those 29 workers. What is known, is that upon Chŏn’s tragic death, PIP inspectors looked into his case and discovered that a number of violations were committed by his employers. These included the absence of a supervisor monitoring the North Korean workers and the non-issuance of the necessary protective gear to be worn on the job; Chŏn’s uniform was, in fact, made of flammable fabric. On top of this, it was discovered that he worked long, 12-hour workdays, was never given an employment contract and had his passport taken from him. 4

North Korean workforce in the EU: now and then

The story of Chŏn was unveiled by “Slaves of the system,” a project investigating forced North Korean labor in the EU. 5 Thanks to archival research, witness testimonies and field research in Poland, the Netherlands-based team is looking into a phenomenon that is commonplace in this democratic country in the heart of Europe, but one that the media seldom talk about.

“The public does not know very much about this,” 6 confirms Remco Breuker, a professor of Korean studies at the University of Leiden and the leader of the Dutch research initiative. “The goal of our project is to draw attention to what is happening in our own backyard and to stop the human rights infringements and exploitation of the North Korean workers,” he adds.

No one knows for sure how many North Koreans work abroad. The non-profit group, NK Watch, claim that there are about 100,000 workers from the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) in 40 countries around the world. 7 The Seoul-based NGO, Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), in contrast, estimates that they are between 50,000 and 70,000, 8 with up to 40,000 of them working in China and Russia, while others end up in Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. 9 Interestingly, hundreds of North Korean citizens currently work in two EU countries alone: Poland and Malta. 10

And there used to be more. Since the late 1990s and until a few years ago, North Koreans could also be found in other European nations, such as Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic,  11 where they worked in sweatshops and in a shoe factory. 12 In 2006, there were still 408 North Korean workers in the Czech Republic, 392 of them young women between the ages of 20 and 28 years old. 13 Back then, North Korean women in the Czech Republic worked as seamstresses sewing military uniforms in Železná Ruda, 14 and stitching headrests for French, German and Japanese automobile manufacturers in Náchod. 15

The Czech government stopped issuing visas and work permits for DPRK citizens in June 2006 16 – and Romania and Bulgaria did the same – but it was a couple of years before all the North Korean workers had left. What pressured and then convinced the Czech, Romanian and Bulgarian authorities to cease importing their workforce from Pyongyang, were the media and individuals, who made the governments aware of the North Korean laborers’ living conditions. 17

The NGO, European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea (EAHRNK), states that between March 2013 and September 2015, Malta issued 93 visas to North Korean citizens. 18 Today, workers from the DPRK, alongside their Vietnamese and Chinese colleagues, are employed in a textile factory that produces goods for luxury brands. The factory, a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned enterprise, is located in the Maltese capital, Valletta. It is believed the North Koreans employed there are transferred to Malta by intermediaries from China, work 14 hours a day and are paid just 75 EUR a month. 19

North Korean workers as seen from Warsaw

Just like other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, Poland had excellent diplomatic relations with North Korea between the 1950s and the 1980s. So much so that during the Korean War, Poland welcomed 6,000 children from the DPRK, who were orphaned by the conflict. These children lived in the little towns of Otwock, Świder and Płakowice from ’51 to ’59, when they were forced to return to their homeland never to return. Those in the DPRK knew that the then-supreme leader Kim Il-sung went to Poland in ‘56 to visit those orphans, 20 and their stories have been narrated in Polish books, radio and video documentaries as well. 21

Twenty-seven years after the fall of communism in Warsaw, the diplomatic relations between Poland and North Korea are good. Poland is one of the 25 countries which maintain an embassy in Pyongyang and the DPRK embassy is well recognizable in the Polish capital. As for the economic relations, the Polish-North Korean marine transport joint-venture, CHOPOL, founded in ’67, is still operational, maintaining headquarters in both Gdynia and Pyongyang. The company owns a single cargo ship used to carry metal ores and coal across the Yellow Sea. CHOPOL was considering expanding its fleet, 22 but the recently approved EU sanctions against North Korea, which ban “exports from the DPRK of certain mineral products,” 23 may prevent that.

When it comes to North Koreans working in Poland, NGOs estimate that there are currently between 500 and 800 of them from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Tatra range in the south. 24 Currently North Koreans in the country are mostly employed as welders and bricklayers at shipyards and constructions sites in major Polish cities, such as Warsaw, Krakow, Wrocław, Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin. They can also be found in villages like Karczew, where they pick tomatoes, and many more used to work in orchards. 25 26

North Koreans are seen as reliable, resilient workers. They don’t complain about poor working conditions, don’t join workers’ unions, don’t binge drink or call in sick, and they can withstand 12-hour shifts on a daily basis. Moreover, they’re often as skilled at their jobs as their Polish colleagues. “Companies employing North Korean workers get a cheap and compliant workforce,” 27 confirms Michael Glendinning, director of EAHRNK. They are a workforce worth recruiting from 5,000 miles away, despite the language and cultural barriers.

Since 2010 at least five recruiting agencies – three DPRK-based and two Polish-based – have been providing North Korean workers to between 28 and 32 Polish companies, 28 In six years’ time the Polish Labor Inspectorate looked into 23 workplaces employing North Koreans and found 77 (with a total of 377 workers from the DPRK) illegal employment cases. Among the violations the inspectors came across were missing written contracts, unpaid overtime, delays in paid wages, long working hours and a disregard of the customary 5-day work-week rule. 29

Polish legislation on the subject

Violations aside, most of these people live and work in Poland legally, with visas issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and work permits issued by the Voivodships, or regional authorities. 30 When it comes to the work permits given to non-EU citizens, Glendinning points out that, “there is nothing specific stopping Poland from issuing work permits to North Koreans.” Jacqueline Sanchez-Pyrcz, director of the Department of Foreigners at the Masovian Voivodeship in Warsaw confirms this: “There are no distinctions between nationalities and categories of workers, meaning that there are no extra procedures required for North Korean citizens,” 31 she says.

Some sources estimate that over the last five years, the number of North Koreans working in Poland increased two or threefold, with 1,972 work permits issued to North Koreans; 32 back in 2011 there were only 239 work permit holders in the country from the DPRK. 33 This is a growth made possible by current Polish legislation, which includes five types of work permits for foreigners: A, B, C, D, and E. 34

Work permits D and E can be issued to foreign employees working for foreign companies having no branches in Poland. This peculiarity may help North Korean intermediaries, unknown to the relevant Polish authorities, obtain valid work permits for their workers from the DPRK. However, as explained by Sanchez-Pyrcz: “Foreign employers have to enlist a person, who resides in Poland to gather documents that confirm the fulfillment of Polish work regulatory obligations, and to represent the employer’s interests with the Voivodeship and other competent institutions.” 35

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that it only issued 156 visas to North Koreans in 2015. The Ministry has also recently stated that since the nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang in January of this year, it has no longer been permitting North Korean workers into Poland. A South Korean Foreign Minister spokesman confirmed these claims, saying that Poland stopped issuing visas for North Koreans amid concerns that they might be subjected to human rights violations. 36 As for the work permits issued by the Polish regional authorities, the Ministry in Warsaw claims that only 482 were issued for DPRK citizens as of 2015, 37 a significant discrepancy with the numbers provided by NGOs.

Working in Poland as seen from Pyongyang

For North Koreans, leaving their homeland behind to work abroad is an honor and a privilege. So much so, that some even try to bribe officials in order to get a job outside the DPRK. 38 However, it is only the most loyal citizens that come from the most trustworthy families that can hope to be chosen by the Pyongyang authorities. “For these people it is an easy and relatively risk-free way to earn significant funds,” stresses Glendinning.

Rafał Tomański, a Polish freelance journalist who covered the topic this year in an article published in the daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, 39 confirms: “For many North Koreans the chance to go abroad for any type of work is the utmost recognition . This happens because they have a three-generation rule, which means the sons and grandsons participate in their grandfather’s success.”  40 Strong family bonds can also be used by the DPRK authorities to put indirect pressure on the people they send abroad – “their relatives can easily be punished if the workers do anything bad,” explains Tomański.

Why do the authorities in Pyongyang risk letting thousands of skilled workers leave the country every year when they might defect? After all, DPRK’s borders are constantly surveilled by armed personnel, and no ordinary citizen is allowed to take a leisure or business trip abroad. What’s in the deal for the North Korean regime? The answer is foreign currency.

Due to current UN and EU sanctions against North Korea, the regime in Pyongyang struggles with access to foreign currency to pay for its expensive nuclear missile programs. However, the regime manages to get a steady income from the people it sends abroad, by keeping the better part of the wages they earn through state-run intermediaries. “Estimates generally place forced labor as the third highest earner for the regime, so for their part, it’s worth sending people overseas,” acknowledges Glendinning. The NKDB estimates that up to 70% of what North Korean workers earn abroad goes to the authorities in Pyongyang, while 20% pays for their lodging, food,  and bribes, leaving only 10% in the workers’ pockets. 41

“Interviews with former North Korean workers abroad, who defected, confirm this practice,” says Breuker, who also points out that, “the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that the average illegal worker in Europe earns only about 13,200 EUR from their employer per year, meaning that most of Pyongyang’s revenue is coming from the workers.” And jobs in Poland are seen as particularly lucrative in this respect, because Polish companies pay higher wages than their counterparts in other countries currently hosting North Korean workers.

Tomański tells us that although foreign currency is an important part of the deal, its not the only one. “The workers can gather information not accessible to their country in an official way. They can observe how modern agriculture works, what welding equipment repairs ships most effectively and how a construction site is run nowadays” he says, adding that, “North Korean workers are often divided into small groups of five people, where they monitor each other. That’s why nothing is hidden and everything is reported.” A situation strikingly similar to the one described in a November 2015 Newsweek Polska article that reported that, “for every 10 North Korean workers there is one informer, called a guardian.” 42

Is this really forced labor?

Most of the North Koreans working in Poland today hold legal papers to live and work there, unlike they do in some other places, like Qatar, which prompted The Guardian to accuse the small Persian Gulf country of “state-sponsored slavery”. 43 Are the 77 violations found over the course of only six years by Polish labor inspectors enough to prompt a discussion about “state-sponsored slavery” in Poland? NGOs looking into the issue claim so, and call the North Koreans in Poland “laborers,” not “workers”.

The ILO established 11 indicators that determine when work is considered forced labor; 44 these include: the withholding of wages, the restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, retention of documents, abusive working and living conditions and excessive overtime. Only one indicator must be met for a worker to be considered a forced laborer and, and as the tragic story of Chŏn Kyŏngsu has proven, DPRK citizens working in Poland may suffer much more. “North Koreans are deprived of the majority of their salaries, work long hours in poor and unsafe conditions, rarely have days off and are monitored,” states Glendinning. “Not only that, they are under duress to be compliant because their families are kept in North Korea, and as such, can’t misbehave or complain,” he adds.

“What happens after these people get their legal right to work here, is that the Polish state and the local authorities completely forget about them, and don’t care about the way they live,”  45 says Barbara Wycisk, a member of Razem, the party that recently picketed a construction site where North Koreans are helping building luxury condos in the Polish capital. 46 “We know that workers from the DPRK are kept in one building in Warsaw and cannot go anywhere on their own; they work overtime without being compensated, and they have no days off or health insurance,” she stresses.

While nobody can confirm whether it’s standard practice to take passports away from North Koreans, there is little doubt that they work up to 62 hours per week, live together in isolated locations and cannot move freely around Poland or take any vacations. As for their salaries, NGOs and the media claim that most North Korean workers in Poland do not receive more than 70 EUR (300 PLN) per month. This is much more than what they would earn in their home country, where the average salaries for manual workers are estimated at less than 25 EUR per month, 47 just one-sixth of the current Polish minimum monthly wage. 48

“We don’t know how much of the salaries go to the North Korean employees,” 49 admits Jacek Białas, a lawyer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw. “It’s possible that the workers are forced to give part of their earnings to their North Korean employers, but we don’t know anything about their contracts. If DPRK workers are only getting 70 EUR monthly from Polish companies – this would be a violation of our Labor Code,” he says.

One Polish company, ATAL, has been employing a North Korean workforce for eight years, and they received heavy media scrutiny. However, the company states that all the North Koreans working at its construction site in Warsaw are employed through a subcontractor, J.P. Construct, and hold temporary residence visas as well as work permits. Moreover, the company denies that its North Korean workers only earn 70 EUR per month by stressing that, “the terms of remuneration are set out in the work permit, according to which the employee must earn no less than 70% of the average monthly salary in the region.” 50

The documentary, Cash for Kim, shows how many of the North Koreans working in Poland are recruited by Rungrado General Trading Corporation, a state-owned company run by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), whose chairman is the supreme leader Kim Jong-un, himself. It is Rungrado that provides the North Korean workforce to Poland-based subcontractors, who then “lease” them to other Polish companies. The welders working at Crist Shipyards in Gdynia are provided by Armex while the ones at the ATAL construction site in Warsaw come via J.P. Construct. 51

What the UN and EU did and can do

This system is common practice, is authorized by Polish law, and as such, cannot be tackled by the regional authorities or by the National Labor Inspectorate. However, Glendinning stresses that, “other European countries could do a lot to stop this, for example, by asking for Article 5 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights on the ‘prohibition of slavery and forced labor’ 52 to be enforced, or the European Union’s guidelines for the protection of third country nationals, which was written into the Directive 2011/98-EU.”  53

This is something that has not happened thus far, even though on March 31st this year the Council of the EU,  54 in accordance with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution 2270, 55 expanded the restrictive measures against the DRPK. The new sanctions established by the EU include export and import prohibitions on anything that might contribute to the development of the DPRK’s armed forces. Member states will also be required to expel DPRK representatives and third country nationals, who are involved in any illicit programs, as identified by UNSC resolutions. However, there is no direct mention of the imported North Korean workforce in the EU, or how those workers’ revenues are likely financing Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, and the UN is aware of the connection.

According to an October 2015 UN report, 56 North Korea is estimated to have earned between 1.05 and 1.90 billion EUR a year by sending workers abroad. Marzuki Darusman, the special rapporteur on human rights in the DRPK, accused the regime in Pyongyang of violating the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 57 which bans forced labor. North Korea signed the treaty in ’81, but asked to withdraw from the ICCPR in ’97 after they’d already began sending thousands of North Korean workers abroad. The request for withdrawal was rejected by the UN, 58 and over the following 19 years, international nor European direct action was taken to tackle the practice.

As Breuker stresses: “What is going on in Malta and Poland directly contravenes national and EU laws, as well as international treaties, such as that of the ILO. It also defies the sanctions against North Korea set by the UN and the EU, although it is debatable to what extent. All things considered, there should be enough reason for the EU to take an interest in the topic, but so far, this has not happened.” And Tomański insists: “The only way to discourage Polish companies from hiring North Koreans is to show them the real lives of these people here. If it worked in other post-communist countries in Central Eastern Europe, maybe it will work in Poland.”


  1. Leiden Asia Centre, “Slaves of the system: Research on North Korean forced labour in the EU,” (accessed on June 17th, 2016).
  2. “Cash for Kim: North Korean Forced Labourers Are Working to Their Death in Poland,” VICE Germany, May 2016, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Remco Breuker, all further quotes taken from a mail exchange with the author, May 2, 2016.
  7. Simon Mundy, “North Korean workers exploited abroad to pay Pyongyang’s bills,” Financial Times, May 8, 2015, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  8. “A Prison with no Fence,” Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Colin Freeman, “Poland  and Malta accused of using North Korean ‘forced labour,’” The Telegraph, September 30, 2015, toention forehindh research gro (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  11. “A Prison with no Fence,” Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.
  12. International Network for the Human Rights of North Korean Overseas Labor, “The Conditions of North Korean Overseas Labor,” December 2012, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  13. Mindy Kay Bricker, “North Koreans in Czech jobs: slave labor?” The New York Times, November 8, 2008, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  14. Marie Jelinkova, “The North Koreans in the Czech Republic: The Silent Workers,”, March 30, 2006, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  15. Mindy Kay Bricker, “North Koreans in Czech jobs,”
  16. Hiroyuki Tanaka, “North Korea: Understanding Migration to and from a Closed Country,” Migration Policy Institute, January 7, 2008, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  17. “A Prison with no Fence,” Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.
  18. Colin Freeman, “Poland and Malta accused of using North Korean,”
  19. Kevin Schembri Orland, “Alleged Exploitation of North Korean Workers in Malta highlighted in European Parliament,” Malta Independent, February 18, 2016, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  20. “Prime Minister Kim Il Sung in Poland, 1956,” YouTube, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  21. “’Osieroceni’. Historia tajnego ośrodka dla koreańskich dzieci w Polsce,” Polskie Radio, December 2, 2012, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  22. Giuseppe Sedia, “The strange history of North Korean-Polish relations,” Krakow Post, June 17, 2015,, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  23. European Council, “North Korea: EU expands restrictive measures in line with UNSC resolution,” March 31, 2016, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  24. Rafał Tomański, “Polska w budowie – dzięki niewolnikom z Korei Płn. Może harują właśnie przy twoim mieszkaniu?” Gazeta Wyborcza, April 14, 2016,, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  25. “Cash for Kim,” VICE Germany,
  26. Janusz Kędracki, “They Love North Korea in the Village of Kleczanów,” Gazeta Wyborcza, July 10, 2008, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  27. Michael Glendinning, all further quotes taken from a mail exchange with the author, April 17, 2016.
  28. Leiden Asia Centre, “Slaves of the system,”
  29. “Cash for Kim,” VICE Germany,
  30. Masovian Voivodeship, “Work permits for Foreigners,” (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  31. Jacqueline Sanchez-Pyrcz, all further quotes taken from a mail exchange with the author, May 31, 2016.
  32. “Cash for Kim” VICE Germany,
  33. Rafał Tomański, “Polska w budowie,”
  34. Masovian Voivodeship, “Forms and official letters templates for Foreigners,” (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  35. “Act of 20 April 2004 on Employment, Promotion and Labour Market Institutions,” Invest in Poland, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  36. Jack Kim, “South Korea courts isolated North’s old friends in push for change,” Reuters, June 7, 2016, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  37. “Poland Halts Intake of North Korean Workers,” Transitions Online, June 8, 2016, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  38. Michael Larkin, “Interview: Behind North Korea’s Use of Slave Labor,” The Diplomat, October 8, 2015, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  39. Rafał Tomański, “Polska w budowie,”
  40. Rafał Tomański, all further quotes taken from a mail exchange with the author, April 19, 2016.
  41. “A Prison with no Fence,” Database Center for North Korean Human Rights.
  42. “Jak Polska wspiera Koreę Północną,” Newsweek Polska, November 16, 2015, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  43. Pete Pattisson, “North Koreans working as ‘state-sponsored slaves’ in Qatar,” The Guardian, November 7, 2014, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  44. International Labour  Organization, “ILO Indicators of Forced Labour,” (accessed on 59Barbara Wycisk, all further quotes taken from a conversation with the author, April 29, 2016.
  45. “Barbara Wycisk, all further quotes taken from a conversation with the author, April 29, 2016.
  46. “Pracownicy z Korei Północnej w Wilanowie. ‘Tu budują niewolnicy!’” Tvn Warszawa 24, May 1, 2016, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  47. Andrei Lankov, “How much money do North Koreans make?” NK News, March 25, 2014, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  48. “Poland to see minimum wage hike from start-2016,” Radio Poland, September 16, 2015, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  49. Jacek Białas, all further quotes taken from a phone interview with the author, April 19, 2016.
  50. Rafał Tomański, “Polska w budowie,”
  51. “Cash for Kim, VICE Germany,
  52. European Parliament, “Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,” (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  53. “Directive 2011/98/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13th December 2011,” Official Journal of the European Union, December 23, 2011, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  54. European Council, “North Korea: EU expands restrictive measures,”
  55. United Nations Security Council, “Resolution 2270 (2016),” (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  56. “North Korea putting thousands into forced labour abroad, UN says,” The Guardian, October 29, 2015, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  57. United Nations Human Rights “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” (accessed on June 17, 2016).
  58. “U.N. Blocks Rights Move by North Korea,” The New York Times, October 31, 1997, (accessed on June 17, 2016).
Lorenzo Berardi

Lorenzo Berardi

is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw. He is a contributor for Lettera43, The Varsovian, Polonicult and former correspondent of Lettera43 from the UK.