March 17, 2015 / 8:29 AM / 2 years ago

U.N. expert to probe conditions of North Korean workers abroad

UN Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman addrrsses a news conference on the situation of human rights in North Korea in Geneva March 16, 2015.Pierre Albouy

GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. human rights investigator for North Korea said on Monday he would probe allegations of an estimated 20,000 North Koreans working in slave-like conditions abroad, mainly in China, Russia and the Middle East.

Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), told Reuters some of the North Korean workers were reported to be in Qatar to help build facilities for the 2022 World Cup.

NK Watch put the number at more than 100,000 workers in 40 countries and said they earned $3 billion annually in foreign currency for the Pyongyang government. The Seoul-based rights group urged an investigation into complicity by host countries.

No reason was given for the discrepancy in the estimates.

"The overseas workers, the North Korean bonded laborers, on a first take, may involve as much as 20,000 North Korean workers outside of North Korea," Darusman told reporters after addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Initial information indicated the majority worked in China and the Russian Federation, he said, reiterating his request to visit China to investigate.

Disputes on human rights should be resolved through talks, said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

"China hopes the international community can fairly and objectively view North Korea's human rights situation and pay attention to the difficulties and challenges North Korea faces in its social and economic development and provide more constructive assistance," Hong said in Beijing.

A report a year ago by a U.N. commission of inquiry, which included Darusman, documented killings, torture and political prison camps that it said amounted to crimes against humanity by North Korea. Pyongyang denies the existence of the camps and any violations.

North Korean diplomat Kim Yong-Ho, in a speech to the Geneva forum on Monday, again rejected the report as based on false testimony, and called for Darusman's resignation.

Darusman, referring to overseas workers, told Reuters: "It has now emerged more and more visibly and therefore it is time to address the matter in a way that clarifies the real situation."

He had received information about workers being "bonded laborers or slave laborers", given their poor remuneration and long working hours.

"A sizeable number are working in the Middle East also. These workers are being used to acquire foreign exchange, for example," he added.

Most worked in forestry, construction and restaurants, said Ahn Myeong Chul, the executive director of NK Watch.

"The authorities are holding the families of North Korean workers so workers cannot escape the work site or complain about the conditions," he told reporters.

Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Alison Williams and Clarence Fernandez

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