N. Koreans Toil Abroad Under Grim Conditions

Times Staff Writer

The old schoolhouse stands alone at the end of a quiet country road flanked by snow-flecked wheat fields. From behind the locked door, opaque with smoked glass, comes the clatter of sewing machines and, improbably enough, the babble of young female voices speaking Korean.

The elementary school closed long ago for lack of students. The entire village 20 miles west of Prague has only about 200 people.

The schoolhouse is now a factory producing uniforms. Almost all the workers are North Korean, and the women initially looked delighted to see visitors. It gets lonely working out here, thousands of miles from home. They crowded around to chat.


“I’m not so happy here. There is nobody who speaks my language. I’m so far from home,” volunteered a tentative young woman in a T-shirt and sweatpants who said she was from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

But as she spoke, an older woman with stern posture and an expressionless face -- a North Korean security official -- passed by in the corridor. The young women scattered wordlessly and disappeared into another room, closing and bolting the door behind them.

Hundreds of young North Korean women are working in garment and leather factories like this one, easing a labor shortage in small Czech towns. Their presence in this recent member of the European Union is something of a throwback to before the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when Prague, like Pyongyang, was a partner in the Communist bloc.

The North Korean government keeps most of the earnings, apparently one of the few legal sources of hard currency for an isolated and impoverished government believed to be living off counterfeiting, drug trafficking and weapons sales. Experts estimate that there are 10,000 to 15,000 North Koreans working abroad in behalf of their government in jobs ranging from nursing to construction work. In addition to the Czech Republic, North Korea has sent workers to Russia, Libya, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and Angola, defectors say.

Almost the entire monthly salary of each of the women here, about $260, the Czech minimum wage, is deposited directly into an account controlled by the North Korean government, which gives the workers only a fraction of the money.

To the extent that they are allowed outside, they go only in groups. Often they are accompanied by a guard from the North Korean Embassy who is referred to as their “interpreter.” They live under strict surveillance in dormitories with photographs of North Korea’s late founder Kim Il Sung and current leader Kim Jong Il gracing the walls. Their only entertainment is propaganda films and newspapers sent from North Korea, and occasional exercise in the yard outside.


“This is 21st century slave labor,” said Kim Tae San, a former official of the North Korean Embassy in Prague. He helped set up the factories in 1998 and served as president of one of the shoe factories until he defected to South Korea in 2002.

It also was Kim’s job to collect the salaries and distribute the money to workers. He said 55% was taken off the top as a “voluntary” contribution to the cause of the socialist revolution. The women had to buy and cook their own food. Additional sums were deducted for accommodation, transportation and such extras as flowers for the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

The women even had to pay for the propaganda films they were forced to watch. By the time all the deductions were made, each received between $20 and $30 a month. They spent less than $10 of it on food, buying only the cheapest local macaroni.

“They try to save money by not eating,” said Kim, the former embassy official. He says that his wife, who accompanied him on visits to the factory, was concerned that women’s menstruation stopped, their breasts shriveled and many experienced acute constipation. “We were always trying to get them to spend more on food, but they were desperate to bring money home to their families.”

Kim said that Czechs often mistook the North Korean women for convict laborers because of the harsh conditions. “They would ask the girls, ‘What terrible thing did you do to be sent here to work like this?’ ”

In fact, the women usually come from families deemed sufficiently loyal to the government that their daughters will not defect. With salaries at state-owned firms in North Korea as low as $1 per month, the chance to work abroad for a three-year stint is considered a privilege.


Having shed its own communist dictatorship, the Czech Republic is sensitive to human rights issues. On the other hand, the country has to employ about 200,000 guest workers, largely to replace Czechs who have left to seek higher wages in Western Europe.

At the beginning of December, there were 321 North Korean garment workers in six locations in the country, according to the Czech Labor Ministry. The North Koreans declined to speak publicly about the factories.

“It is not in our interest to provide information. This is a private thing and nobody should care about it,” said a North Korean Embassy employee supervising factory workers in Nachod, a town near the Polish border.

Czech officials say the North Koreans are model workers.

“They are so quiet you would hardly know they are here,” said Zdenek Belohlavek, labor division director for the district of Beroun, which encompasses Zelezna and Zebrak, a larger town where about 75 North Korean seamstresses stitch underwear.

Belohlavek displayed a thick dossier of photos and vital statistics of the women, most of whom were born between 1979 and 1981. All their paperwork is in perfect order, and the factories appear to be in full compliance with the law, he said.

Belohlavek acknowledged that labor investigators had only communicated with the workers through an interpreter from the North Korean Embassy. He said they were troubled by the women’s apparent lack of freedom.


“They have guards. I don’t know why. It’s not like anybody would steal them,” he said.

Another labor investigator, Jirina Novakova, who has visited the factories, also complained that the women’s salaries were deposited into a single bank account in the name of a North Korean Embassy interpreter.

“Frankly, we have some difficulty with that,” she said. “But if they do it voluntarily, there is not much we can do about it.”

Jiri Balaban, owner of the Zelezna factory, said it was none of his business what the workers did in their free time or how they spent their money. “My business is that they work,” he said.

In theory, the women could escape. Although the doors are locked from the inside in Zelezna, the windows are not barred. But where would they go?

Few speak any language other than Korean. Zelezna has one pay phone, a mayor’s office that is open once a week for two hours and a general store so small that you have to order bread a day in advance.

In Zebrak, the North Koreans only go downtown to the supermarket in groups on Fridays between 4 and 6 p.m. They live in a pleasant-looking, lemon-yellow dormitory that was recently constructed across the parking lot from their factory. Blinds are kept drawn and the doors locked. Deliverymen must leave packages on the front stoop.


The Baroque town square in Nachod, its Christmas lights, Chinese restaurant and movie theater showing “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “March of the Penguins,” was off-limits for the 40 North Korean women who stitch leather suitcases and belts along with guest workers from Vietnam, Mongolia and Ukraine.

“They can’t go anywhere. You can’t talk to them,” security guard Antonin Janicek said. “The other women go to the pub and the cinema. Some get married here. But not the Koreans.”

Last year, when a Czech television crew attempted to film a shoe factory in Skutec, a group of irate North Koreans broke their camera. After the incident, the factory decided it would no longer employ North Koreans because of bad publicity and human rights concerns.

“They oftentimes do not even have enough [money] for food,” Vaclav Kosner, financial director of the factory, was quoted as telling the CTK news agency. “They are sometimes truly hungry.”

The seamstresses were first sent abroad at the height of North Korea’s famine to raise money to buy raw materials for North Korean shoes and clothing. North Korea officially was a partner in the factories through two trading companies, but former diplomat Kim said that this was a front to cover the government’s embarrassment about having to send workers abroad. The factories are mostly Czech-owned, but the underwear factory in Zebrak is owned by an Italian company.

By far the largest number of North Koreans working outside their country are in Russia, where they do mostly logging and construction in military-style camps run by the North Korean government. When the camps were set up in the early 1970s, the workers were North Korean prisoners. But as the North Korean economy disintegrated in the late 1980s, doing hard labor in Siberia came to be seen as a reward because at least it meant getting adequate food.


Kim Yong Il, who got a job in mine construction in the 1990s because of his brother’s political connections, said he and a dozen other men were kept in a house with bars on the windows and a padlock on the door. He received no money, but his family in North Korea received extra food rations. He defected in 1996 and now lives in Seoul. He is one of about 50 North Koreans who escaped the camps in Russia and are now living in South Korea, according to the Christian North Korean Assn., a defector group in Seoul.

There have been no such incidents with the seamstresses in the Czech Republic. The fact that they come from Pyongyang, home only to the most loyal North Koreans, means that their families have privileges that could be taken away in an instant if a relative were to defect.

“If they were to run away, their families would vanish into thin air and they would never see them again,” said Kim, the former diplomat.

In 2002, the diplomat and his wife defected in Prague and sought asylum from South Korea. Soon afterward, their adult son and daughter were taken away. He believes they were sent to a prison camp.

Kim, 53, recently asked a contact in North Korea to gather some information about relatives. “Even my wife’s relatives, down to the second cousins, have disappeared,” he said. “We couldn’t find a trace of them.”