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North Korea uses ingenious constructions to supply forced labour to the EU

Companies in Poland employ North Korean forced labourers on a large scale. Some of these companies are supported by the European Union. These are the findings of a research team headed by Leiden Professor of Korean Studies Remco Breuker and employment lawyer Imke van Gardingen. The study is still ongoing in other European countries.

Report and documentary

Never before has in-depth research been carried out on North Korean forced labour in Europe. The team of researchers,  comprising Korea experts, human rights specialists and employment experts (Klara Boonstra, VU), will publish their initial findings in the week of 23 May, followed by a full report on the situation in Poland at the end of June. Breuker also appears in a documentary on this instance of forced labour broadcast on 21 May on the website VICE.  

Workers’ wages go to the North Korean state

The researchers discovered that at least 32 Polish companies – large shipyards, small intermediaries and horticultural companies – employ North Korean labourers, workers who are being completely exploited. They work twelve to sixteen hours a day and only have one half-day a week free. Apart from a minimal sum for living costs, the whole of their salary of on average 800 euros a month goes to the North Korean state. The little free time the workers have, they are forced to spend on propaganda meetings, ideological training and self-criticism sessions.

EU has to intervene

Breuker estimates that between 400 and 800 North Koreans are currently working in Poland. The workers are not allowed to have contact with other people. ‘We can’t do anything about the situation in North Korea, but this is a case of forced labour in Europe and we have to put a stop to it as quickly as possible. The European Member States need to abide by the laws they themselves have made.’ The team discovered that some of the companies involved have received millions of euros in loans from the EU. The loans are intended to support Polish regions and to develop local work opportunities. Breuker believes it is deplorable that the North Koreans are benefiting indirectly from these subsidies. It also cuts across UN and EU sanctions. The impoverished North Korean state is in dire need of foreign currency, at least in part to further develop its arsenal of nuclear weapons.


The researchers base their findings on statements from the Polish employers and colleagues of the forced labourers. Out of fear of reprisals, they did not speak with the North Korean workers themselves. They did, however, speak to several who had fled, although this number is small because escape has immediate consequences for their family remaining in North Korea. The team also studied reports compiled by the Polish labour inspectorate. The inspectorate is strongly opposed to this forced labour and sounded the alarm after a North Korean welder lost his life due to inadequate safety measures.

Clever employment constructions

The way that the Polish state cooperates with this forces labour is remarkable, according to Breuker. The North Koreans have a valid residence and work permit and the companies are able to exploit clever legal constructions in order to circumvent all kinds of laws. The workers are popular because they are cheap and generally well educated, they work extremely hard and do whatever they are asked to do. Some companies are even partly owned by both the North Korean and the Polish state. Another interesting snippet of information is that one of the shipyards is responsible for maintaining NATO vessels.

Research in the Netherlands and other European countries

There are indications that at least in the past there have been North Koreans working in the Netherlands. This study is still ongoing and the team is looking at the situation in other EU countries. Breuker: ‘My fear is that what we have uncovered so far is just the tip of the iceberg. I now want to examine whether the North Koreans move from one EU country to another to work there under some kind of lease construction.’


It has been common knowledge for a long time that North Korean forced labourers have been set to work in China, Russia, Qatar and Europe, but very little information was available about Europe. This study  aims to set out clearly the scale on which this is happening. The study is being carried out on behalf of and with funding from the LeidenAsiaCentre at Leiden University. The centre was established at the start of 2016 and human rights research is one of its key themes. The LAC carries out societal work relating to Asia and is financed by a private bequest from the Vaes-Elias Foundation.

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