A United Nations investigator urged Russia, China, and other countries that have taken in forced labor from North Korea to grant him access to investigate for human rights abuses.
Marzuki Darusman, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said the majority of North Koreans were sent to Russia and China under a state forced labor program, but they could also be found in Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
He called on those countries to grant him access to verify allegations from human rights groups that the workers were forced to labor for meager wages and long hours under gruelling conditions.
Officials at China's and Russia's missions to the United Nations were not immediately available for comment on Darusman's request.
Darusman also encouraged the UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Urmila Bhoola, to investigate the circumstances of North Koreans sent abroad to work.
He warned that countries and companies that hire North Koreans under illegal conditions "become complicit in an unacceptable system of forced labor."
Darusman told a UN committee that the reason behind North Korea's program of exporting workers "appears to be to circumvent United Nations sanctions imposed on the country with a view to earning currencies."
The state takes a cut from the menial wages workers earn, mainly in mining, logging, textile, and construction projects. That enables North Korea to reap between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion a year from the operation, he said.
North Korea is under UN sanctions for carrying out nuclear tests and missile launches. In addition to an arms embargo, Pyongyang is banned from trading in nuclear and missile technology and is not allowed to import luxury goods.
The UN Security Council added the issue of human rights in North Korea to its agenda in December, after a UN Commission of Inquiry report last year detailed abuses in the impoverished Asian country that it said were comparable to Nazi-era atrocities.
"The human rights situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has more or less remained the same," Darusman said.
North Korea's Deputy UN Ambassador Choe Myong Nam rejected Darusman's charges, calling them "politicization" and "double standards."
Christopher Green, a North Korean specialist at the University of Leiden, said that despite facing forced labor conditions, including restriction of movement, isolation, withholding of wages, and retention of identity documents, North Koreans actually vie to get into the worker abroad program.
Average earnings of between $120 and $150 a month, even after wage confiscation by the government, far exceed what workers can earn at home in North Korea. Many can even save enough while working abroad to keep their families well-supplied for five to 10 years after returning home.
"WIthin this context, work overseas fits into a hierarchy of labor desirability" in North Korea, Green said.
Countries like Russia and China, which say they subscribe to international labor laws and standards, can be pressured to ensure the North Koreans are treated better, he said.
But he added that UN members should be careful to ensure that the push for improved conditions not prompt countries to stop offering work opportunities for North Koreans.
“In the end, it is good news that North Koreans are leaving North Korea to go to other countries to work," he said.
“Nobody who has given any serious thought to the matter should be advocating for halting the flow. It helps bring money into communities inside North Korea. And when people who leave then return, they bring not simply their savings but also ideas, aspirations, and new ways of seeing the world.”
With reporting by Reuters, North Korea News, and Voice of America