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...

Share story

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, come the clatter of sewing machines and, improbably, the babble of young female voices speaking Korean.

The schoolhouse, which closed long ago for lack of students in this village of 200, 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 miles 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, closing and bolting the door behind them.

Hundreds of young North Korean women are working in garment and leather factories like this one, easing a labor shortage in small Czech towns. Their presence in this new member of the European Union is an echo of North Korea’s former alliance with other Communist countries.

The North Korean government keeps most of the earnings, apparently one of the few legal sources of hard currency for an isolated and impoverished regime living off counterfeiting, drug trading and weapons sales.

Experts estimate 10,000 to 15,000 North Koreans are working abroad on behalf of their government in jobs ranging from nursing to construction work. North Korea has sent workers to Russia, Libya, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and Angola, in addition to the Czech Republic, defectors say.

Government account

Almost the entire monthly salaries of the women here, about $260, the Czech minimum wage, are deposited directly in an account controlled by the North Korean government, which gives them only a fraction of the money.

To the extent that they are allowed outside in this village 20 miles west of Prague, 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 strict surveillance in dormitories with photographs of North Korea’s late founder Kim Il Sung and current leader Kim Jong Il gracing the walls. Their only entertainment is propaganda films and newspapers sent from North Korea, and occasional exercise in the yard outside.

“This is 21st-century slave labor,” said Kim Tae San, a former official of 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 and his wife defected in 2002 and sought asylum from South Korea.

It was Kim’s job to collect the salaries and distribute the money to workers. He said 55 percent was taken off the top as a “voluntary” contribution to the cause of the socialist revolution. The women had to buy and cook their own food. Additional sums were deducted for accommodations, transportation and extras such as flowers for the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

The women even had to pay for the propaganda films they were forced to watch. By the time all the deductions were made, they received between $20 and $30 a month. They spent less than $10 of it on food, buying only the cheapest local macaroni.

Kim says 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 regime that their daughters will not defect. With salaries at state-owned companies in North Korea as low as $1 per month, the chance to work abroad for a three-year stint is considered a privilege.

Czech reaction

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

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, most of whom were born between 1979 and 1981. All their paperwork is in perfect order and the factories appear to be in full compliance with the law, he said.

Belohlavek acknowledged that labor investigators had communicated with the workers only through an interpreter from the North Korean Embassy.

He said they were troubled by the women’s apparent lack of freedom.

“They have guards. I don’t know why. It’s not like anybody would steal them,” Belohlavek said.

Another labor investigator, Jirina Novakova, who has visited the factories, complained that the women’s salaries were deposited into a single bank account in the name of one of the North Korean embassy interpreters.

“Frankly, we have some difficulty with that,” she said. “But if they do it voluntarily, there is not much we can do about it.”

Jiri Balaban, owner of the Zelezna factory, said it was none of his business what the women did in their free time or how they spent their money. “My business is that they work,” he said.

Last year, when Czech television crew members tried to film a shoe factory in Skutec, a group of irate North Koreans broke their camera. After the incident, the factory decided it would no longer employ North Koreans because of bad publicity and human-rights concerns.

The factories are mostly Czech-owned, but an Italian company owns the underwear factory in Zebrak.

Many in Russia

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 theory, the women in the factories 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. Zelezna has one pay phone, a mayor’s office that is open once a week for two hours, and a general store so small that you have to order bread a day in advance.

In Zebrak, the North Koreans go downtown to the supermarket in groups only on Fridays between 4 and 6 p.m.

They live in a pleasant-looking, lemon-yellow dormitory that recently was constructed across the parking lot from their factory. Blinds are kept drawn and the doors locked. Deliverymen must leave supplies on the front stoop.

The Baroque town square in Nachod, with its Christmas lights, Chinese restaurant and movie theater showing “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and “March of the Penguins,” was off-limits for the 40 North Korean women who stitch leather suitcases and belts along with guest workers from Vietnam, Mongolia and Ukraine.

“They can’t go anywhere. You can’t talk to them,” security guard Antonin Janicek said. “The other women go to the pub and the cinema. Some get married here. But not the Koreans.”