With Kim Jong Un repeatedly testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear weapons every few weeks, it’s perhaps understandable that the North Korean slave trade gets relatively little attention from the national media. Yet even a cursory examination of this human rights tragedy makes clear why the slave trade not only threatens those who suffer under the practice, but also represents a serious national security issue for the United States.
In short, Pyongyang uses the slave trade to support the worst actions of the North Korean regime. While realists and liberal internationalists typically argue about whether the goal of foreign policy should be to achieve pragmatic objectives or to support our fundamental beliefs about the value of human lives, adherents to either school likely would agree that working to end the scourge of the North Korean slave trade meets the threshold for action.
The liberal internationalist’s case to address the slave trade is obvious: the regime rejects the value of human life via its labor practices. The government sends workers abroad, some of whom volunteer for the role, seeing opportunity outside of the country. Many of these workers become forced laborers, with estimates ranging between 50,000 and 100,000. They live in isolation and are compelled to work difficult jobs with little to no time off. If the workers try to escape, they or their families back in North Korea face reprisals. Family members may be forced into hard labor and may be subjected to stricter surveillance.
The realist case to address the slave trade may be less immediately apparent, but the fruits of the slave trade are a legitimate threat to the security of the United States and its allies. Human trafficking earns the regime an estimated $1.2 and $2.3 billion per year, representing a significant portion of North Korea’s estimated gross domestic product of $28 billion. Forced laborers’ wages are sent back to the North Korean government in foreign currency, which the regime then uses to fund its military and weapons programs, with an estimated quarter of GDP going toward the military. As the administration and Congress align to apply more pressure on North Korea, the slave trade should rightly be identified as a lever that could be used to prevent more money from being funneled into the nuclear program.
Not only does foreign currency fund the nuclear program, but it also serves as a means to evade sanctions. Primary sanctions prevent American companies from inadvertently supporting the North Korean government in its quest to build nuclear weapons, oppress its people, and disrupt the international system. Secondary sanctions target entities in third-party countries who support North Korea, preventing those entities from accessing the U.S. financial system if they continue their support for the Hermit Kingdom. As both types of sanctions are applied, coupled with the growing number of United Nations sanctions, the country has had a harder time accessing cash. The United States should expect evasion to become an even greater problem as these sanctions take their full effect.
This evasion is useful to bear in mind as Congress is poised to pass a comprehensive sanctions bill on North Korea for the second time this year. Earlier this month, the Senate Banking Committee marked up the Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea Act of 2017, also known as the BRINK Act, unanimously moving the bipartisan bill out of committee so it can be voted on by the full Senate. Primarily, the BRINK Act builds upon existing authorities for the U.S. Treasury Department to apply primary and secondary sanctions against North Korea, and calls for gathering information on how the country attempts to circumvent sanctions through shell companies. It’s focused on forcing the North Koreans to alter their behavior and abandon their nuclear program.
Buried among the BRINK Act’s provisions is guidance for Treasury and other agencies to develop a coordinated response to human trafficking and to use the Department’s tools to prevent sanctions evasion. This will help the government train and equip people to identify and disrupt human trafficking, such as by developing a system to flag suspicious actions. Treasury will be authorized to set geographic targeting orders that create additional reporting requirements for certain areas, with the goal of better identifying entities who try to evade sanctions via human trafficking.
While the United States still has more room to act to combat North Korean trafficking and sanctions evasion, passage of the latest sanctions bill would better tailor future actions for effective anti-trafficking strategies. What’s more, combating the North Korean slave trade would allow the United States to marry its liberal ideals with realist objectives.
Megan Reiss is a senior national security fellow with the R Street Institute, where she writes about cybersecurity and sanctions policy. Megan joined R Street in September 2017 from the Office of U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., for whom she was also a senior national security fellow. She has an LLM in international criminal justice and armed conflict from the University of Nottingham School of Law and a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
Photo Credit: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides guidance on a nuclear weapons program in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on September 3, 2017.