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Dutch ships built by North Koreans in Polish shipyards

North Korean labourers are still being forced to work in the European Union. According to researchers, including Professor of Korean Studies Remco Breuker at Leiden University, Dutch companies are buying ships from a dockyard that uses North Korean workers.

The companies in question are Dutch businesses that have ships built in a Polish dockyard close to Szczecin (North-West Poland) where  North Korean forced labourers work. It may be that these companies were not aware of this construction in their production chain, Breuker, head of the research, commented. ‘Our estimates are that around eighty North Koreans are living at the dockyard - at least that was the figure at the end of 2017. Fifty of them work at the dockyard, and the others are seconded elsewhere.' 

Companies ignore severe penalties

The researchers at the LeidenAsiaCentre presented their findings at a conference on 6 February in Leiden's Academy Building. The North Korean forced labourers can be found working in Africa, Asia and the Middle East as well as in the EU. This practice has benefits for the different parties: for companies it is financially interestng because their wages are low and the North Korean regime demands a large proportion of the wages. This forced labour where human rights are infringed has been going on for many years. Breuker describes it as shocking that these practices just continue in spite of the severe penalties imposed on North Korea by the EU and the UN.  The LeidenAsiaCentre published a controversial report in 2016 (‘Slaves to the System’) in which the researchers warned about these dubious constructions. This system of having workers employed abroad means that the North Korean regime has access to foreign currency that can be used to buy weapons. 


The research team based its conclusions on documents from the Chamber of Commerce and on findings by investigative journalists who visited the Szczecin dockyard for the Dollar Heroes - Valuta voor de dictator documentary. In interviews, Polish and North Korean managers talk about how they make use of the North Koreans workers. The conference was also the premiere of Dollar Heroes that highlights the poor living conditions of these forced labourers and how they are put to work at dockyards in Poland and construction sites in Russia under certain ‘sub-hiring constructions’.

Modern slavery

On the face of it the constructions appear legal, with work permits, professional certificates and payslips. In practice they are examples of modern slavery, says Breuker. The working conditions are dangerous, the hours are very long , the North Koreans live in cramped conditions and a large part of their pay is diverted to the North Korean regime. 

Research report

Breuker presented the research report at the conference, after which different experts in the field of criminal law and international public law gave their reactions. One of the makers of Dollar Heroes introduced the documentary, which can be seen on Wednesay 7 February at 22.55 hrs on NPO 2.

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