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World Cup Shows Need to Crack Down on Kim’s Labor Exploitation

Shipping workers abroad helps the North Korean leader evade sanctions and finance his nuclear weapons.

By , the senior director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and , the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Visitors take photos of the 2022 FIFA World Cup countdown clock in Doha, Qatar, on Oct. 30.
Visitors take photos of the 2022 FIFA World Cup countdown clock in Doha, Qatar, on Oct. 30.
Visitors take photos of the 2022 FIFA World Cup countdown clock in Doha, Qatar, on Oct. 30. GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

When tourists flood Qatar for the FIFA World Cup later this month, they will find themselves—likely without knowing it—in facilities that North Korean laborers helped build. The glitzy new hotels and ultramodern stadiums constructed for soccer’s biggest event hide an ugly reality: the deplorable living and working conditions of the people who built them—and the governments that were eager to exploit their labor for profit. For the North Korean regime, these overseas workers were a useful way to evade international sanctions and earn hard currency, in part to finance its burgeoning nuclear and missile programs. For the Qataris, it was a cheap source of docile labor.

If the Biden administration is serious about holding human rights violators accountable and curbing North Korea’s military threat, it needs to put an end to this practice—and get creative about closing the loopholes in North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s sanctions evasion playbook.

It’s been widely reported that Qatar secured the hosting rights to the world’s preeminent sporting event through bribes and other forms of corruption. Since winning the bid, preparations for the World Cup have shined an even less flattering light on Qatar, especially for its kafala system, which long gave employers near-total control over the employment and immigration status of vulnerable migrant workers. Although some aspects of the system were recently reformed following considerable international pressure, it continues to create conditions for rampant abuse and exploitation.

When tourists flood Qatar for the FIFA World Cup later this month, they will find themselves—likely without knowing it—in facilities that North Korean laborers helped build. The glitzy new hotels and ultramodern stadiums constructed for soccer’s biggest event hide an ugly reality: the deplorable living and working conditions of the people who built them—and the governments that were eager to exploit their labor for profit. For the North Korean regime, these overseas workers were a useful way to evade international sanctions and earn hard currency, in part to finance its burgeoning nuclear and missile programs. For the Qataris, it was a cheap source of docile labor.

If the Biden administration is serious about holding human rights violators accountable and curbing North Korea’s military threat, it needs to put an end to this practice—and get creative about closing the loopholes in North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s sanctions evasion playbook.

It’s been widely reported that Qatar secured the hosting rights to the world’s preeminent sporting event through bribes and other forms of corruption. Since winning the bid, preparations for the World Cup have shined an even less flattering light on Qatar, especially for its kafala system, which long gave employers near-total control over the employment and immigration status of vulnerable migrant workers. Although some aspects of the system were recently reformed following considerable international pressure, it continues to create conditions for rampant abuse and exploitation.

North Korea was one of the countries eager to cash in on Qatar’s noncompliance with international labor standards. In 2014, the Guardian reported that North Korean laborers worked at four construction sites in Qatar’s Lusail City, where the 2022 World Cup final will be held. In January 2016, according to reports the Qatari government filed with the U.N. Security Council, there were around 2,500 North Korean laborers in the country. By March 2019, that number had been reduced to 70. For North Korea, renting out its workers to other countries allows the Kim regime to fund its prohibited nuclear and missile programs, as well as pay for imported luxury goods to keep core elites happy. To accomplish this, Pyongyang mandates that overseas workers’ salaries be deposited into government-controlled accounts, of which workers receive only a small fraction. According to a May report by the Biden administration, the “North Korean government withholds up to 90 percent of wages of overseas workers which generates an annual revenue to the government of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

One North Korean worker told the Guardian that they were in Qatar “to earn foreign currency for our nation.” At the time of the newspaper report, Doha admitted there were 2,800 North Korean workers in the country but said it had “no recorded complaints about their payment or treatment.”

In the run-up to the World Cup, Qatar has come under increased scrutiny for its broader labor conditions, under which migrant workers “face conditions indicative of labor trafficking, to include restricted movement, delayed salaries or payment withholding, denial of employment-associated benefits, passport confiscation, and threats of deportation,” according to a U.S. State Department report in July. In what appears to be an attempt to minimize the government’s responsibility and avoid addressing migrant labor issues systematically, Qatar has blamed the exploitation of workers on three Qatari companies. The State Department has credited Doha for undertaking labor reforms in recent years, writing that Qatar “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.”

The exploitation of North Korean laborers is longstanding and widespread, stretching far beyond the World Cup. In 2017, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution that outlawed the employment of cheap North Korean labor, requiring all U.N. member states to repatriate the workers and their oversight personnel. Qatar has largely complied with this mandate. According to the sanctions implementation reports it filed with the U.N. Security Council, all North Korean laborers were gone from Qatar by January 2021. Unfortunately, the U.N. resolution’s success has been limited in other contexts, in no small part because China and Russia have ignored its mandates—despite having initially supported the measure. In July, the U.S. State Department estimated that between 20,000 and 100,000 North Korean laborers were still dispatched to China on official orders. Given Russia’s and China’s own reprehensible human rights records, it should not be surprising that both are willing to perpetuate Kim’s abuse of overseas workers.

In its new national security strategy, the Biden administration placed special emphasis on human rights. Yet it has thus far failed to meaningfully address the Kim regime’s oppression and exploitation of its own people at home and abroad. For over three decades, nuclear and other negotiations with North Korea have sidelined human rights, with no tangible results. As long as the United States fails to act, abuses against North Koreans will grow as surely as Kim’s military stockpile.

Hopefully, the Biden administration will find a willing partner to address these issues in Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s new president. Compared with previous administrations, Yoon has shown he is serious about North Korean human rights. In August, his administration urged China to stop returning defectors—those who, unlike the laborers, flee the country without state approval—to North Korea, where they face torture, abuse, and in some cases death. Yoon is also investigating his predecessor’s record, including the forced repatriation of two North Korean fishermen in 2019.

North Koreans officially dispatched on overseas labor contracts do not face the same danger upon returning home as defectors do, unless they disobey guidance from the party or Kim’s regime. But because they provide an important source of funding to the state’s nuclear and missile programs, the return of these workers is mandated by the U.N. Security Council’s resolution and applicable U.S. legislation. Given that Russia and China have already ignored this resolution and would likely veto any further Security Council action, U.S. President Joe Biden and Yoon should instead pursue resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly and U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate host countries that do not comply with their obligation to repatriate North Korean laborers. The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, Elizabeth Salmón, could be a key promoter of such an endeavor.

For host states, noncompliance with international labor conventions will hurt their reputation and could affect their access to foreign direct investment. To avoid these consequences, hosting states should, at a minimum, conduct scheduled and surprise inspections of work sites employing North Koreans. Hosts should also use this access to distribute material—in Korean—informing workers of their rights, including the International Labour Organization’s 11 core conventions protecting fundamental rights such as freedom of association and elimination of forced labor.

Under its current approach, North Korea views forced labor as crucial to its economic development under the existing sanctions. However, for the United States and South Korea to improve North Korean workers’ treatment, they must make North Korea understand that its long-term economic prospects hinge on protecting labor and human rights. North Korea’s repeated breach of international agreements dating back to the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework has devastated its international credibility. Taking steps toward compliance with international labor standards could be a way for the regime to rebuild credibility as a basis for future negotiations that might bring economic relief.

If Biden and Yoon can reengage Kim, they should urge him to abide by his country’s existing obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and its own constitution and domestic legislation to protect the rights of its workers. To build further credibility, North Korea could also join the International Labour Organization and apply internationally accepted minimum labor standards to its employment practices.

At home, the Biden administration can act unilaterally to promote North Korean human rights, for which it will find strong bipartisan support in Congress. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Republican Rep. Young Kim have submitted bills with Democratic cosponsors to reauthorize the North Korean Human Rights Act, which encourages the administration to provide unfiltered news and information to the North Korean people and promotes the protection of North Korean refugees and defectors. Congressional mandates for North Korean sanctions, including human rights provisions, passed in 2016, 2017, and 2019 with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. The United States should implement these sanctions to target North Korean, Russian, and Chinese companies, individuals, and banks supporting human rights abuses by the Kim regime.

In May, the Biden administration took an important first step by issuing an advisory warning of “reputational risks and the potential for legal consequences” for those who support overseas North Korean information technology workers, for example, by processing financial transactions related to their deployment. To build on this progress, the administration should update the list of sanctions evasion tactics used by North Korea that were listed in a 2018 advisory detailing the risks for businesses with supply chain links to North Korea.

Perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit would be for Biden to appoint a special envoy for North Korean human rights. While Yoon has already appointed a South Korean ambassador-at-large on the issue, the position has been vacant in Washington since January 2017, despite a congressional mandate to fill it. Naming an envoy for this crucial issue would be a relatively low-cost way of demonstrating the administration’s commitment to human rights in North Korea, Qatar, and other countries.

Four years ago, more than 3.5 billion people watched France defeat Croatia in the final match of the World Cup. The United States, together with its allies and partners, should use this year’s tournament as an opportunity to raise international attention to the Kim regime’s crimes and the unconscionable circumstances of the North Korean people. The Biden administration can make an actual difference in their lives, and it should not waste another moment.

Anthony Ruggiero is the senior director of the nonproliferation and biodefense program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council during the Trump administration. Twitter: @NatSecAnthony

Greg Scarlatoiu is the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Twitter: @GregScarlatoiu

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