China and North Korea Complicit in Modern Day-Human Trafficking and Slave Labor

June 27, 2017 Updated: August 18, 2017

While unveiling a new State Department report on June 27, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson slammed China and North Korea as among the worst offenders in human trafficking and forced labor today, and held China responsible for the tens of thousands of North Korean workers in China who essentially work as slaves there.

The congressionally mandated Trafficking in Persons Report, compiled annually by the State Department, seeks to assess government efforts around the world to combat human trafficking. The 2017 edition contains assessments for 187 countries and territories, including the United States.

The report ranks countries in three tiers, of which the Tier 3 status is the lowest and indicates a country has failed to satisfy even the minimum standards to combat human trafficking. Previously, China was placed on the Tier 2 “watch list” for three consecutive years, and has now been downgraded to Tier 3 as of this year’s report.

In his remarks, Tillerson said that China is downgraded to Tier 3 status in part because “it hasn’t taken serious steps to end its own complicity in human trafficking.” Furthermore, Tillerson said that China needs to be held responsible for complicity in allowing forced labor by North Koreans to exist in China unchecked.

Ivanka Trump speaks at the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report Ceremony at the State Department in Washington, D.C. June 27, 2017.
Ivanka Trump speaks at the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report Ceremony at the State Department in Washington, D.C. June 27, 2017.

“An estimated 52,000 to 80,000 North Korean citizens are working overseas as forced laborers primarily in Russia and China, many of them working 20 hours a day. Their pay does not come to them directly. It goes to the government of [North] Korea, which confiscates most of that obviously,” Tillerson said.

Human rights watchdog groups in South Korea and the United States have repeatedly highlighted how the North Korean regime profits, in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year, from exporting enslaved workers to China and other countries.

The report says that China “is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking,” and  that “state-sponsored forced labor continues to be an area of significant concern.”

Tillerson also warned that failure to take action would lead to a chain of negative consequences for the interests of the United States around the world, as forced labor and human trafficking elsewhere would lead to rampant corruption and the undermining of the rule of law, which would then empower criminals and terrorists worldwide. 

“Responsible nations simply cannot allow this to go on, and we continue to call on any nation that is hosting workers from North Korea in a forced-labor arrangement to send those people home. Responsible nations also must take further action,” he said.

The move to downgrade China was hailed by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a long-term critic of China’s communist regime. “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson deserves the gratitude of victims and human rights defenders, [for] calling out the Chinese government’s deplorable record and complicity in the cruelty of the sex and labor trafficking problem,” Smith said.