Sanctions update

February 1, 2016 6:45 AM

Last week I identified the organized export of labor as a possible new target of sanctions. Legislation that unanimously passed the Senate Foreign Relations committee would appear to establish the legal basis for sanctioning this activity.

This practice, which earns the Pyongyang regime probably hundreds of millions of dollars in hard currency annually, is highly abusive: workers are stripped of their passports, surveilled by regime thugs, strip searched, denied most of their earnings, forced to perform unauthorized labor without compensation, and in some cases literally worked to death.

Sanctions for human trafficking are arguably mandatory under section 104(a)(5) of the Senate legislation as serious human rights abuses, although the House language was clearer, in that it defined "serious human rights abuses." Section 304(a), which will require State to name the North Korean persons and entities responsible for violations. These should, at the very least, include North Korean entities exploiting the labor. Under 304(b), both North Korean and non-North Koreans person facilitating these abuses are subject to designation under 104(a)(5), which freezes their assets.

Section 302(b) requires the State Department to report on which countries are using North Korean forced labor, and to develop a diplomatic strategy to discourage the use of this labor, as well as to devise public diplomacy and information campaigns.

Countries that are thought to employ North Korean labor include Russia, China, Kuwait, the UAE, Mongolia, Qatar, Angola, Poland, Malaysia, Oman, Malta, Myanmar, Nigeria, Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Ethiopia. The use of such labor in Qatar on World Cup facilities could entangle the beleaguered FIFA in yet another public relations disaster.

Apart from the human trafficking angle, Daniel Wertz, of the National Committee on North Korea notes that there are some modest differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill, mainly to reduce the potential impact of sanctions on humanitarian work. Neither version of the legislation provides a wholesale humanitarian exemption. “Instead, (in a departure from the House bill), the Senate bill establishes a waiver system to exempt humanitarian aid related transactions from sanctions, requiring "notification and accountability controls" to ensure that covered activities are indeed humanitarian. This provision provides that transactions incident to humanitarian assistance, including shipping and banking, can be waived by the President. This provision is related to the designation of prohibited parties, blocking of property, inspections, and other measures under the sanctions but not to the exemption of export licenses for humanitarian aid items in a separate part of the bill.

It is unclear whether such a waiver system would add red tape for NGOs working in North Korea, make long-term planning more difficult, or complicate emergency response activities (as might happen if the waiver system required NGOs to register in advance of conducting activities in North Korea). Much will depend on how the current (and future) Administration interprets the legislation, and how inclined the Administration is to support private humanitarian activities in North Korea.”

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