Journalist and film critic.
NORTH KOREA: Why do UN sanctions fail to eradicate North Korea’s exploitative operations?

How can North Korea, one of the world’s most heavily sanctioned nations, continue to earn enough foreign exchange to finance the development of its nuclear weapons? The 2018 documentary Dollar Heroes attempts to answer this question.

The investigative film, directed by Carl Gierstorfer and Sebastian Weis for The Why Foundation, alleges that North Korea skirts the stringent UN sanctions by running a secretive work programme that allows generating sufficient revenue for the state to continue fulfilling its nuclear ambitions. The film claims that the country’s leadership lures its workers with false promises, but once the workers enroll in the programme overseas, they find themselves toiling away for little to no pay, with their wages floating to the ruling Workers’ Party.

Party Duty

According to former South Korean government official Kim Kwang-Cheol, the foreign currency earned by North Korean labourers abroad is not used to strengthen the country’s public economy but to expand its nuclear programme and boost the so-called «palace economy», with the substantial share of wealth flowing into the hands of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and his family.

One of such labourers, a North Korean man working in the Russian city of Vladivostok, confides in the film that his fellow countrymen working abroad, known as «dollar heroes», sometimes earn as little as 50 US dollars a month, or are even left with nothing, after paying a mandatory «Party Duty».

they find themselves toiling away for little to no pay, with their wages floating to the ruling Workers’ Party.

The documentary asks bold questions, relying on experts for some answers that propel the investigation further. One of the experts, historian of Korea and Northeast Asia at Leiden University Remco Breuker, brands North Korea as «the biggest illegal job agency in the world» that rents out tens of thousands of its labourers, totalling some 150,000 people across the world, according to expert estimates. China and Russia, which are believed to be the main destinations for North Korean workers, host around 100,000 and 40,000 «dollar heroes» respectively. However, the appetite for the low-cost North Korean labour goes far beyond the two countries, stretching from the UAE to the heart of Europe, Poland. «It is the export of the North Korean system abroad, and it works,» poignantly remarks the Dutch professor, adding that «it is exactly the same system, with or without the country.»

By featuring testimonials of North Korean workers and those who have defected, the film puts a human . . .

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