The government is stepping up efforts with the United States and South Korea to urge countries that accept workers from North Korea to stop in order to cut off financing to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development programs, sources close to the matter said.
Defying U.N. Security Council resolutions and warnings from the international community, North Korea has conducted four nuclear tests, most recently in January, as well as rocket launches using ballistic missile technology.
At a time when Japan, along with the United States and South Korea, remain on alert for a possible fifth nuclear test by the North, the sources said on Saturday that the three allies have been trying since spring to root out one of the sources of North Korea’s finances: foreign currency earned by North Korean workers abroad.
The number of North Koreans thought to be working abroad is estimated at between 50,000 to 60,000, and their remittances bring in $500 million annually. Pyongyang systematically sends people abroad for work as an important source of foreign exchange.
The North Koreans’ main destinations are Russia and China, part of the Security Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members, along with Britain, France and the United States.
Including Russia and China, around 20 countries from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa also accept North Korean citizens, the sources said, adding that the number has been expanding since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came to power after the death of his father and longtime ruler, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
If North Korea carries out another nuclear test, Japan, as a nonpermanent member of the Security Council, is poised to push for drafting a new Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on foreign income earned by North Koreans who are working outside the country, the sources said.
Tokyo, Washington and Seoul believe that the money earned overseas is being used by North Korea to develop ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, but attempts to subject foreign income earned by North Korean migrant workers to the UNSC’s sanctions resolution after the nuclear test in January failed because of opposition, the sources said.
Japan then decided to take steps to target Pyongyang’s flow of remittances.
Washington introduced in March its own sanctions to regulate the flow of remittances to North Korea, and Japan, the United States and South Korea reaffirmed their goal of cooperating on the matter at a high-level meeting in mid-July in Hawaii.
Japan and its partners also aim to step up pressure on Russia and China, a key ally of North Korea, since the impact of cutting off financing for North Korea will not be as effective without the help of Moscow and Beijing, the sources said.
They will also play up the issue from a humanitarian viewpoint, since North Korean officials are believed to be exploiting North Koreans working abroad, according to the sources.
U.N. special rapporteur on the North Korean human rights situation Marzuki Darusman said in October that North Korea has more than 50,000 nationals abroad engaged in what amounts to forced labor to earn foreign currency.