Background Briefing

A Way Forward

As discussed, Annex 22-B presents an extraordinary opportunity to push for greater openness and respect for fundamental workers rights at the KIC and in other potential North Korean outward processing zones.  Unless the annex is amended, however, this important opportunity will have been missed.  These outward processing zones are one of the few windows into and out of the closed and repressive country and therefore also one of the few means for exerting such pressure on North Korea.  Properly revised, Annex 22-B could represent a small but important step in the fight for rights improvements in North Korea. 

Requiring North Korean Outward Processing Zones to Uphold Workers’ Rights

North Korean workers producing goods for duty-free export to the United States under the free trade accord should be provided the same rights protection as their Korean counterparts.  The double standard permitted by Annex 22-B is unacceptable.  Human Rights Watch, therefore, recommends that Annex 22-B be amended to require that:

1) North Korean outward processing zones fulfill the labor rights requirements of the main text of the US-Korea FTA, including by adopting and maintaining, in their laws and practices, the workers’ rights articulated in the ILO Declaration and promoting worker awareness and understanding of these rights before being eligible for coverage under the agreement; 

2) North Korean outward processing zones uphold the US-Korea FTA workers’ rights requirements as a condition for continued eligibility for coverage under the accord.  To prevent backsliding on workers’ rights in zones covered by the agreement, the annex should provide for a public petition process for alleging non-compliance with Annex 22-B; annual evaluations of workers’ rights conditions by the Committee on Outward Processing Zones on the Korean Peninsula; and clear procedures for mandatory withdrawal of the zones’ trade agreement benefits if the public petitions or annual assessments credibly demonstrate that the labor rights requirements are being violated. 

Requiring Increased Openness

A thorough, objective, accurate assessment of workers’ rights conditions in potential outward processing zones is impossible under the present circumstances in North Korea.  So that the Committee on Outward Processing Zones on the Korean Peninsula can conduct meaningful workers’ rights evaluations, Human Rights Watch recommends that Annex 22-B be amended to require that:

1) Before being considered for inclusion under the US-Korea FTA, each North Korean outward processing zone permit an independent, third-party workers’ rights monitoring visit by the International Labour Organization or an international human rights, workers’ rights, or trade union organization, agreed upon by US and Korean authorities, during which worksites are toured and observed, randomly selected workers are interviewed anonymously and outside the watch of North Korean supervisors, relevant employer records are collected and reviewed, and after which the results are publicly disclosed;

2) Zones submit at least annually to such monitoring visits, whose results will also be publicly disclosed and considered by the Committee on Outward Processing Zones on the Korean Peninsula’s annual workers’ rights evaluations;

3) Retaliation against zone workers, or their families, interviewed during labor rights monitoring visits be considered a violation of Annex 22-B workers’ rights requirements and automatically trigger procedures for withdrawing the zone’s trade agreement benefits.

Requiring Legislatively-Approved Amendments to Extend the Accord

Approval of the US-Korea FTA by both parties’ legislative branches is necessary before the accord can enter into force.  US congressional approval is also required before trade benefits are granted to developing countries under unilateral US trade preference programs, such as the Generalized System of Preferences.  Similarly, Annex 22-B should be amended to unambiguously require legislative approval to extend the US-Korea FTA to any North Korean outward processing zone.  The legislative process serves as a check on the power of US and Korean authorities and as an important opportunity to verify the Committee on Outward Processing Zones on the Korean Peninsula’s workers’ rights assessment before bringing a zone under the accord.