Surviving Slave Labor with Il Lim

Il Lim, North Korean defector and former slave laborer, addresses the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.

Full Remarks

I would like to tell you about my experience as an overseas worker. 19 years ago, on November 8th, 1996, I went to Kuwait as an overseas worker.

I stayed at a construction company which was organised by a Pyongyang Foreign Construction Complex. There were about 600 North Korean workers like me, at the time there were two other North Korean companies like mine in Kuwait. One was a construction company established by the General Bureau of Capital Construction of North Korea, with 700 North Korean dispatched workers. The other was a construction company established by the General Bureau of North Korea’, Nunra construction, with 500 North Korean dispatched workers. Only North Korean workers were there.

The workers of my construction company stayed in Kuwait at a closed school building that was bombed in the Gulf War in 1991. The classrooms were our bedrooms and the gym functioned as a cafeteria and a meeting room. Kim il-sung and Kim Jong-il’s portraits were hung up high in every classroom.

I started work on November 8th, 1996. I started work the very next day. I would wake up at 5am and eat breakfast at 6am, for an hour. They provided 200 grams of bread, one boiled egg and a cup of coffee as breakfast. Compared to breakfast in Pyongyang, this was very good; you wouldn’t even have imagined this in Pyongyang. We worked from 7am to 12. I worked in a housing construction site located in the middle of a huge empty desert. I worked on things that the machine couldn’t work on, basic construction work. From 12 to 1 it was lunchtime. They provided lunch. They provided rice, beef soup, beef broth and kimchi for lunch and that was it. The breakfast and the lunch that they provided in Kuwait you can’t even imagine to eat in Pyongyang. Even the one percent of North Korea couldn’t imagine eating all this.

In the afternoon, it’s a very hot place in Kuwait, so for the other foreign workers, they had three hours of lunch because it was too hot. But for us North Koreans, we only got one hour of lunch time and went back to work from one, and we worked till 7pm. We ate dinner at seven and they provided noodles for dinner. Sometimes they didn’t have noodles so we had to go and get flour and make noodles ourselves. Later, after thinking about it, I found out that the North Korean officials wanted to save money on the food and take the money themselves. Even so, the noodles were a very luxurious food for us, compared to the food that we had in Pyongyang.

The fact that we could eat three times a day was unimaginable and we were always told to be thankful to the North Korean government for providing all this food. After dinner, we would shower and around 10 we would go to bed. However, one in three days we would have to work overtime, at nighttime. It’s not in the rule books, but the North Korean officials would gather people and say that we should work and work more and finish this construction faster so we can provide joy and be a source of joy to the Supreme leader, Kim Jong-il. So, we would work three more hours from nine to twelve. Therefore, we would work up to 14 to 15 hours a day, if not 12.

While being abroad the hardest thing is that we had to always go through ideological training, which was the same ideological training we did back in North Korea. We had to go through the same things as we did in North Korea. Despite all this hard work, our only holidays were on the Friday of the second week and the fourth week of the month.

The biggest problem was that we were never paid. For a month, I worked and I didn’t get any salary and I asked why. They first said that the financial situation of the company in Kuwait was not great, so they couldn’t pay me and after two or three months I started to communicate with other foreign workers there, but they said they had received all the money. So it must be that the North Korean government is taking the money. For the five years I was there, the only money that I was paid was 20 KD, Kuwait money, on Kim Jong-Il’s birthday and bought four packs of cigarettes with that money.

I was in despair. I realised that there is no hope for North Korea, or in North Korea. There was a fence on the construction site and when I asked the interpreter about why there’s a fence, they said that it was because, according to Kuwait’s labour laws, the foreign workers site had to have a fence around it. But the South Korean embassy had told me that this was actually not the case, but just a North Korean anomaly. It was because there was a possibility that North Korean workers could actually flee from the work site.

In a lot of Middle Eastern countries there are thousands of North Korean overseas workers and they’re never paid, presumably. This is a reality of North Korea. The only benefit was that we could actually eat overseas but we were never paid. This money from the companies from Kuwait was all going into the accounts of the North Korean government, and this would amount to two hundred million dollars. All this hidden money would finance all the luxurious villas in North Korea and it cost 300 million dollars to maintain those villas. Last year, Kim Jong-il spent 640 million dollars to buy his own luxurious items and fine cuisine.

There are still 20,000 workers in Kuwait where I used to work. The salaries of these workers are only used for the luxuries of Kim Jong-il. This is the face of supreme leader Kim Jong-il, but they keep building more sculptures of this face. After being in the free countries of South Korea and the USA, I realised that this forced labour could only happen in the 19th century of the old world.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a reality of North Korea. They deny it, but this is my experience and so many other North Korean defectors go through all this hardship. Please pay attention to the plight of the overseas workers. Thank you so much.

7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 23, 2015

Speakers and Participants

Il Lim

North Korean defector and former slave laborer


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