North Koreans laboring near the Taedong River in North Korea. Photo: Roman Harak
North Koreans laboring near the Taedong River in North Korea. Photo: Roman Harak

As a veteran of the time not so long ago when only a handful of us Western reporters attempted to cover North Korea, I’m sometimes asked whether I see an improvement. I usually try to look on the bright side, to be encouraging of all the new efforts that reporters and their news organizations have been putting into this supremely difficult field of coverage.

Occasionally, though, a curmudgeonly thought occurs to me that we are not all that well served by the fact that North Korea has become a Western journalistic obsession. One trigger for this thought was the publication of yet another story simplistically repeating the argument that North Koreans working abroad are “slave laborers.”

The latest such piece, from The New York Times: “Even in Poland, Workers’ Wages Flow to North Korea” sports one of the newly fashionable triple bylines that advertise lots of teamwork.

I will give marks for effort on that. Focused on Poland, it gets into all the usual facts about how the guest workers are kept in isolation by their North Korean minders, while much of their pay is diverted to the Pyongyang regime. The aim is clearly to place the story in the “human rights” category of journalism.

But as such articles always do, the Times story fails to discuss in any depth the main strategic point: Just as for citizens of other countries, and despite all the restrictions Pyongyang places on its own people abroad, for North Koreans, travel is broadening. It gives them opportunities – seldom available to stay-at-home countrymen – to compare their system with the ways things are done abroad.

The comparison is seldom favorable to the hereditary Kim regime. Not a few guest workers, thus confronted with the clear inferiority of their home country’s system, have defected. I told some of their stories in my book Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader.

Perhaps, more importantly, the majority of guest workers have not defected but have returned with their earnings, some of them becoming agents of change at home as entrepreneurs investing in the market economy that since the 1990s has developed unofficially, in parallel with the moribund official economy.

DailyNK, a news agency that maintains close contacts inside North Korea, is a South Korean outlet. It sees the positives that Western reporters too often miss when reporting on overseas labor. In a story last week, “Overseas female workers return home, invest money in market ventures,” DailyNK reported on a woman in her 20s from Unsan, in South Pyongan Province.

She “was able to save $3,000 from her time working in China. Her family said she ‘lacked morals and a sense of filial duty’ for failing to bring gifts, but she was unfazed by the insults. The young woman spent almost $2,000 on a 50-pyeong (165 square meters) apartment and also began selling industrial equipment in the market.”

The background, as DailyNK reported: “Hundreds of young women from North and South Pyongan provinces were dispatched for work in China from the beginning of 2014, working in various sectors, including textile manufacturing and the packaging of marine goods.”

The article noted the detail – too often missed by Western reporters and analysts – that those dispatched abroad were all members of the “loyal” class of North Koreans. “In order to qualify, applicants were not permitted to have any incarcerated family members or any relatives who had defected.”

Why is it important that they’re considered “loyal”? It means that when they return, assuming they’ve kept their noses clean while abroad, they may be in position to help influence events in the event of a serious move for change.

That’s an opportunity highly unlikely to become available to their countrymen who are categorized as members of the “hostile” and “wavering” classes and, on that account, are subjected to even tighter restrictions on their movement and activity.

Ultimately a revolution probably must come from the elite of the elite, as I suggest in the plot of my new novel, “Nuclear Blues.”

But coup-makers will need all the help they can get from ordinary citizens. Miners, for example, are typically former soldiers who remain in the reserve forces with access to weapons. They can help bring down the regime when the time comes, if they are so inclined. So can citizens who have learned abroad the truth of their county’s pitiful status and who have returned to become merchants in the markets with access to money – which conceivably can be as important as weapons when (or if) the crunch comes.

The DailyNK article makes clear, as Western accounts typically do, that much of the income from overseas labor attaches to the regime, or to individual bribe-hungry officials.

“All candidates also had to compete to provide the largest bribes in order to stand a chance at being selected. A typical contract lasts for three years in one of China’s northeastern provinces closest to North Korea, such as Liaoning, Jilin or Heilongjiang. Although each worker officially receives a salary of $500 per month from the Chinese side, they only end up personally receiving around $200, with the North Korean government taking the rest.”

That diversion of income – particularly to the state, which can use the funds to build weapons of mass destruction – is a big part of the justification that Western sanctions hawks typically put forth, in addition to considerations of human rights, for cracking down on overseas labor arrangements.

The DailyNK article doesn’t buy that argument but simply notes that “North Korea has now been hit hard by China’s implementation of international sanctions, resulting in hundreds of the workers returning and a loss of associated revenue.”

North Korea’s Kim dynasty plays a long game. Its strategy for conquering South Korea has hardly changed in three generations. Its opponents, too, must play a long game.

In view of that, I continue to lean toward the judgment that the annual revenue to the regime of $200 million or more is insufficient justification for ending an exchange that gradually but significantly increases ordinary North Korean citizens’ knowledge of the world and of their benighted country’s status in that world.

But what, you may ask, does that have to do with my fear that there are too many eager new North Korea watchers in the West. Without belaboring the point, I’ll simply answer that when lots of reporters chase the same story they tend to become a pack, agreeing on some majority conception – in the United States, often the government position du jour – of what the story is.

That happened with most of the Washington press corps during the George W. Bush administration – remember the “WMDs” that Saddam Hussein was alleged to be hiding? – and I see some reason for fearing that it’s happening again with North Korea reporting.

Bradley K Martin

Bradley K Martin has focused on Asia and the Pacific as a journalist since 1977 and has worked as bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Asia Times. At Bloomberg News he was chief North Korea watcher. He is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, a history, and of the speculative novel Nuclear Blues, set in a near-future North Korea after denuclearization and peace talks have failed.

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