Unites States accuses Czechs of hiring North Korean slaves

The Czech Republic regularly criticizes human rights abuses in places like Cuba and Belarus. However the Czechs now find themselves the subject of criticism: the United States says some North Koreans in the Czech Republic are being exploited by Czech employers - in tandem with the North Korean embassy - and are forced to work in slave-like conditions.

During the communist era, Czechoslovakia hosted relatively large numbers of Vietnamese, North Koreans, and Cubans. They were sent here by their home countries to help pay off debts—human labor in exchange for goods produced and sold to fellow socialist states. Yet when the communist regimes in central Europe collapsed, access to cheap labor from Asia did not fall by the wayside.

And some Czech businessmen may have abused this situation, according to a new United States report. The U.S. State Department says some North Koreans, mostly women, are subject to conditions of slavery in Czech-owned textile factories.

The report states that the North Korean women permitted to work in places like Nachod, Zebrak and Zelezna are exploited and that the majority of their earnings - which are minimum wage - go to the North Korean government. Furthermore they are constantly under the watchful eye of guards and are evidently only allowed to leave their dormitories in groups.

According to the daily San Francisco Chronicle, there are hundreds of such North Korean women living and working in the Czech Republic. The paper says most of the women's earnings go straight into a bank account monitored by the North Korean embassy in Prague. What remains of these women's earnings is used to pay their rent, food, and also entrance fees for North Korean propaganda films that they are reportedly made to watch.

Although Czech police have repeatedly investigated the conditions under which the North Korean textile workers live, they have not been able to prove economic exploitation nor abuse of human rights.

The spokesman for the Czech Foreign Ministry, Richard Krpac, told me how the Czech government sees the issue:

"We have carefully read the report of the Department of State, and we definitely do not underestimate the impact of the alleged violation of human rights which the State Department is describing. I would say that it is definitely a matter of concern to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

For its part, the U.S. State Department is dissatisfied with the approach of Czech bodies, and warns that the case of North Korean women in the Czech Republic is related to the global problem of human trafficking.