The Latest Gig Workers: North Korean Diplomats

With tough sanctions by the United Nations effectively isolating North Korea from the world, the country’s embassies have been forced to engage in illicit businesses to shore up cash and support their operations.

According to a news report in The New York Times, North Korea embassies have been engaged in cash-raising schemes that are illegal under international law for years now. Diplomats from the country and their workers have negotiated deals for weapons and drugs, while other illegal businesses include selling machine tools and cows. The diplomats have been known to smuggle alcohol, cigarettes, vehicles and other items that can be imported duty-free.

The report noted that running the businesses on the side is a must for the diplomats in the North Korean economy, since the government does not provide any funding to them. They are expected to bankroll themselves, with any surplus money going to the government.

The report noted that even with the sanctions, North Korea had $6.5 billion in trade in 2016. Embassy revenue accounted for a small portion compared to North Korea’s foreign ventures, some of which included bodyguards that are leased out to dictators and laborers who are put to work at locations around the world. Those laborers have to remit wages, noted the report.

Since at least 1976, diplomats for North Korea have been making money on the side to support their embassies. More recently, they have had to rein in their ambitious money-making plans to keep the lowest possible profile.

The North Korean embassy in London is one example: According to The New York Times report, it’s a mystery as to how the embassy has been able to sustain itself. Kim Joo-il, a former member of the North Korean military who defected in 2007 and currently lives in the UK, told the paper he’s seen embassy employees at a car boot sale, which is similar to a weekend flea market. “They are always there buying secondhand electronics, toys, dolls, kitchen goods,” Kim said. “Some of these things they are cleaning up and fixing to resell, others they are sending home to North Korea.”


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