It’s not quite as gory as Orwell’s Room 101, but Room 39 is a very real part of the North Korean regime’s governing apparatus. It’s the room where Pyongyang’s foreign currency transactions are processed, and some of the activities in which the ruling cabal engage in order to earn those yuan are rather unsavory in their own right.
Selling knockoff cigarettes – not to mention black market arms deals – are old hat for the hermit kingdom. Yet as the party leadership runs low on the cash it needs to keep its cadres in line – by showering them with imported luxuries and building ski resorts and other necessary infrastructure – it’s looked to a new avenue for accumulating hard currency.
In order to meet the $1 billion annual tab that loyalty commands, the regime has begun renting out North Korean labor. Reports indicate that the number of North Koreans working abroad is in the tens of thousands, with much of the labor going to Russian logging camps. Moreover, the work contracts are signed bilaterally between Pyongyang and the host governments with all wages being paid directly to – you guessed it – Room 39.
We’ve heard of state-sponsored terrorism, now we have state-sponsored human trafficking courtesy of the good ‘ol boys up north. What’s more, the abuses of the North Korean regime in the past have largely been committed internally – executing dissenting citizens, massacring the families of individuals who have escaped the Party’s oppression, and, of course, forced labor camps.
That is not to say that North Korea has not committed international crimes. Every flair-up with South Korea has been an indication of the North’s belligerency not only to its own people, but to its neighbors as well. Furthermore, the rhetoric surrounding North Korea’s development of nuclear capabilities is evidence of the ill will the country possesses not just regionally but toward the free world at large.
But this is different. Sending citizens abroad for forced labor, rather than consigning them to internal labor camps, makes the receiving country complicit in one of the most heinous crimes against humanity perpetrated by the regime. Pyongyang is setting a dangerous precedent for which Russia and other countries that are benefiting from the forced labor of North Korean citizens are equally responsible.
Now, North Korea is in talks with Hamas, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States Department of State, to sell them arms and communication equipment. The international community seemingly has little room left to pressure the North Korean regime, as the sanctions placed upon them are not only crippling, but hurting the people far more than the powers that be. However, denying Pyongyang the hard currency it so desperately desires, whether through the sale of its people’s sweat and tears or rockets and com devices, can damage the regime without causing further suffering to the innocent population.