Though most North Koreans will never leave their isolated country, an estimated 100,000 work long hours abroad to earn hard currency for the state. As sanctions against North Korea continue to take a toll, a program of sending contract workers to build monuments in Africa, fish off Fiji, dig tunnels in Burma, and sweat in Chinese factories is heating up, the New York Times reports. Workers toil at least 12 hours a day in 40 countries with only a few days off per year and are lucky to take home 10% of what they earn. Some work in labor camps enclosed by barbed wire while bosses hold their passports and visas; even their communications are tracked, human rights researchers says. A 2012 estimate held 65,000 of them made the state as much as $230 million a year, and rights groups say the workforce now numbers in the six figures.
"North Korea is exploiting their labor and salaries to fatten the private coffers of Kim Jong Un," says the head of NK Watch, which is pushing the UN to investigate based on interviews with 13 former workers who described "state-sponsored slavery." One said he made $160 over three years working up to 21 hours a day in Siberia; bosses promised the remaining funds were going to his family, but families typically received only coupons for state-owned stores with limited supplies, the Times reports. "We suspect that Kim is using some of the money to buy luxury goods for his elite followers and finance the recent building boom in Pyongyang that he has launched to show off his leadership," NK Watch's head says. One researcher adds it may be easier for the world to effect change in these camps than those in North Korea, which the country admitted do exist last year.