Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
In 2014, an overburdened and underequipped North Korean welder died of severe burns while working in a hazardous shipyard. At first glance, this heartbreaking story appeared anything but uncommon. Under the reign of authoritarian tyrant Kim Jong Un, the hermit kingdom has continued a decades-old campaign of “systematic starvation, torture, rape and many executions” against its substantial population of political prisoners, which to this day hovers around 100,000 strong, according to The Guardian.
Life above the 38th parallel can be extinguished with such routine frequency that few outside the world’s most secretive dictatorship notice when a worker vanishes on the job. But this welder didn’t perish in the factories of Pyongyang; rather, he burned to death in the heart of the European Union.
To fund exorbitant military expenditures amid an intense international sanctions regime, North Korea runs an extensive network of human capital exportation. More than 50,000 Korean nationals involuntarily labor abroad, silently maintaining the infrastructure of more than a dozen nations, ranging from Mongolia to Malta. Predictably, these workers toil through 12-hour shifts, only to return to cramped sleeping quarters, chafing under their constant armed supervision. As a token of its appreciation, Kim’s government confiscates 90 percent or more of these workers’ respective salaries, generating billions of dollars in annual revenue for the cash-strapped dictatorship.
Most of the host countries complicit in this slave trade demonstrate few qualms about compromising human rights standards for the prospect of cheap labor. Because of this, international condemnations toward major offenders, such as China and Russia, remain perpetually lost in translation.
But even in Poland, a developed democracy with full EU membership status, the allure of discount workers prevails over corporations’ moral compasses. It was here, in the industrial port city of Gdansk, that the unfortunate welder was carelessly immolated on the job. In the past decade, 32 corporations have employed North Korean laborers within Polish borders, often coordinating their labor acquisitions directly with the Korean government. When questioned about the plight of her company’s foreign work force, one corporate executive responded with almost laughably disprovable claims — “They go out, go shopping, go sightseeing.”
Although Poland eventually ceased issuing new visas to North Korean workers in 2016, this anecdote highlights the pernicious imperceptibility of human trafficking around the globe. The world’s most notoriously petulant dictator funneled 800 blackmailed laborers into a liberal, core economic zone — one so rife with business regulations it prodded half of Britain to support this man — and few Poles batted an eye. As long as Kim Jong-un can capitalize on our collective consumer penchant for willful ignorance, he will continue reaping the benefits of his contemporary slavery empire for years to come.
Reuven Bank, Opinion Editor, is a sophomore ecology and evolution major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.