More than 50,000 North Koreans have been sent to work abroad, mainly in Russia and China, in conditions that a United Nations expert says amount to forced labor.
UN special rapporteur Marzuki Darusman said on October 28 that Pyongyang was increasingly resorting to exporting its workers to get around sanctions and earn hard currency.
He estimated that North Korea reaps about $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion a year by taking a cut off the menial wages earned by the workers.
The vast majority of the workers are employed in Russia and China, but the UN report also listed 15 other countries, including Algeria, Angola, Kuwait, and Poland.
Darusman's annual report is due to be debated by the UN General Assembly this week, and the assembly is expected afterward to once again adopt a resolution condemning Pyongyang's rights record.
North Koreans "have been sent to work in many parts of the world, laboring under conditions that amount to a subjection to forced labor, both by their own and host governments," said Darusman, the UN's specialist on the human rights situation in North Korea.
Darusman warned that companies that hire the workers "become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labor."
He said the exported workers are mainly employed in construction, mining, logging, and textile industries, and are kept in the dark about their contracts, which are negotiated by Pyongyang.
Civil society organizations report that workers from the reclusive Asian nation earn $120-$150 per month on average, don't get enough food, and are sometimes forced to work up to 20 hours a day, with only one or two rest days a month and insufficient food.
Employers pay "significantly higher amounts" to the North Korean government, enabling Pyongyang to profit handsomely from the arrangement, he said.
A construction company in Qatar this year sent back 90 North Koreans whose supervisors forced them to work more than 12 hours a day and underfed them.
One of the workers died from the appalling treatment, said the report, which found there has been no improvement in the dire human rights situation in North Korea overall.
North Korea's persistent human rights violations include summary executions, arbitrary detention, torture, massive ill-treatment of individuals in political prison camps, and severe discrimination based on social class.
"The near total denial of human rights in the country revolves around...instilling fear within the minds and hearts of the population," Darusman said.
He said he "remains convinced" that the Security Council should refer North Korea's human rights situation to the International Criminal Court.
Such a move, however, is likely to be vetoed by permanent council member China and perhaps Russia. Pyongyang has tried to cultivate both over the years as rare allies.
With reporting by AFP and AP