The North Korean government is known for its totalitarian and military regime. The Kim family has ruled for over three generations with an iron fist with their absolute dictatorship shrouded in mystery. Despite having been subjected to numerous UN economic sanctions for decades, foreign money continues to flow into the country. Where do they get these funds to buy nuclear weapons and more?
With the sanctions in place, the local economy must be significantly affected. How do North Korean citizens survive? Well, sadly, living in North Korea means you often resort to buying something from the black market, which sources its goods from China. North Korea shares a border with China, and over 80% of the border is not fenced. However, crossing it is very risky because if you get caught by military security forces, you will have to pay heavy fines or get sent to a labor camp.
Remco Breuker is a Dutch professor who has been studying the North Korean economy for years. One of the main questions that he is trying to answer with his research team is: How does North Korea make money? And where does it go? These funds have an enormous impact on how Kim Jong-un can afford nuclear weapons.
For years there have been rumors about "Bureau 39", a secret, highly classified and mysterious government agency. Defectors claim this to be the country's unofficial "economic ministry". It is dedicated to obtaining foreign money by any means necessary. They will do anything from drug trafficking, counterfeiting, insurance fraud to human trafficking to ensure Kim Jong Un increases his financial resources.
After a series of investigations, it has emerged that human trafficking and slavery is a major income stream for North Korea. Though rich in natural resources, they can't trade them legally. So they have decided to take advantage of their surplus in human capital. Today, an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 North Korean laborers are scattered worldwide, working across several industries like construction or mining.
They have also fostered symbiotic relationships with countries like Cambodia and Syria. In Cambodia, they built an Angkor Wat museum and restaurant complex to collect all earnings for a decade before splitting it 50-50 with the Cambodian government. On the other hand, Syria will need help rebuilding its country, and North Korea has already signed a contract to supply all the laborers.
Most disturbing, however, is how major American and European clothing brands also contribute to this illegal source of funds. These brands work with Chinese clothing contractors that directly or indirectly employ North Koreans. North Korean textile workers are on duty for very long hours and are virtually prisoners at a work camp outside Pyongyang. This means that some of the clothes we purchase might be produced by enslaved people.
With all these discoveries, it is clear that Kim Jong-un is not just a dictator but a shrewd businessman running his country like a corrupt corporation, exploiting its people for profit. The worst part is that we are unaware that we might be potentially complicit with his crimes.
Directed by: Sebastian Weis