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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

N. Korean Women Toil Abroad

ZELEZNA, Czech Republic -- The old schoolhouse stands alone at the end of a quiet country road flanked by snow-flecked wheat fields. From behind the locked door, opaque with smoked glass, comes the clatter of sewing machines and, improbably enough, the babble of young female voices speaking Korean.

The elementary school closed long ago for lack of students. The entire village 32 kilometers west of Prague has only about 200 people.

The schoolhouse is now a factory producing uniforms. Almost all the workers are North Korean, and the women initially looked delighted to see visitors. It gets lonely working out here, thousands of kilometers from home. They crowded around to chat.

"I'm not so happy here. There is nobody who speaks my language. I'm so far from home," volunteered a tentative young woman in a T-shirt and sweatpants who said she was from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

But as she spoke, an older woman with stern posture and an expressionless face -- a North Korean security official -- passed by in the corridor. The young women scattered wordlessly and disappeared into another room.

Hundreds of young North Korean women are working in garment and leather factories like this one, easing a labor shortage in small Czech towns.

The North Korean government keeps most of the earnings, apparently one of the few legal sources of hard currency for an isolated and impoverished government. Experts estimate that there are 10,000 to 15,000 North Koreans working abroad on behalf of their government in jobs ranging from nursing to construction work. In addition to the Czech Republic, North Korea has sent workers to Russia, Libya, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and Angola, defectors say.

Almost the entire monthly salary of each of the women here, about $260, the Czech minimum wage, is deposited directly into an account controlled by the North Korean government, which gives the workers only a fraction of the money.

To the extent that they are allowed outside, they go only in groups. Often they are accompanied by a guard from the North Korean Embassy who is referred to as their "interpreter." They live under surveillance in dormitories. Their only entertainment is propaganda films and newspapers sent from North Korea.

"This is 21st-century slave labor," said Kim Tae San, a former official at the North Korean Embassy in Prague. He helped set up the factories in 1998 and served as president of one of the shoe factories until he defected to South Korea in 2002.

"They try to save money by not eating," Kim said. He says that his wife, who accompanied him on visits to the factory, was concerned that women's menstruation had stopped. "We were always trying to get them to spend more on food, but they were desperate to bring money home to their families."

Kim said that Czechs often mistook the North Korean women for convict laborers because of the harsh conditions. "They would ask the girls, 'What terrible thing did you do to be sent here to work like this?'"

In fact, the women usually come from families deemed sufficiently loyal to the government that their daughters will not defect. With salaries at firms in North Korea as low as $1 per month, the chance to work abroad for a three-year stint is considered a privilege.

Having shed its own communist dictatorship, the Czech Republic is sensitive to human rights issues. On the other hand, the country has to employ about 200,000 guest workers, largely to replace Czechs who have left to seek higher wages in Western Europe.

At the beginning of December, there were 321 North Korean garment workers in six locations in the country, according to the Czech Labor Ministry. The North Koreans declined to speak publicly about the factories.

Czech officials say the North Koreans are model workers.

"They are so quiet you would hardly know they are here," said Zdenek Belohlavek, labor division director for the district of Beroun, which encompasses Zelezna and Zebrak, a larger town where about 75 North Korean seamstresses stitch underwear.

Belohlavek displayed a thick dossier of photos and vital statistics of the women. All their paperwork is in perfect order, and the factories appear to be in full compliance with the law, he said.

In theory, the women could escape. Although the doors are locked from the inside in Zelezna, the windows are not barred. But where would they go?

Few speak any language other than Korean. "They can't go anywhere," security guard Antonin Janicek said in Nachod. "The other women go to the pub and the cinema. Some get married here. But not the Koreans."

The seamstresses were first sent abroad at the height of North Korea's famine to raise money to buy raw materials for North Korean shoes and clothing. By far the largest number of North Koreans working outside their country are in Russia, where they do mostly logging and construction in military-style camps run by the North Korean government. When the camps were set up in the early 1970s, the workers were North Korean prisoners. But as the North Korean economy disintegrated in the late 1980s, doing hard labor in Siberia came to be seen as a reward because at least it meant getting adequate food.

In 2002, the diplomat Kim and his wife defected in Prague and sought asylum from South Korea. Soon afterward, their adult son and daughter were taken away. He believes they were sent to a prison camp.

Kim recently asked a contact in North Korea to gather some information about relatives. "Even my wife's relatives, down to the second cousins, have disappeared," he said. "We couldn't find a trace of them."