‘Hunting for North Koreans’ in itself sounds condescending in so many ways. They are not animals to be hunted down neither are they lowly beings allowed to be harassed
In the midst of the tension between North Korea-Malaysia, it is easy for us to lose sight on the fact that these North Koreans are also fellow human beings who deserve every right and dignity that you and I are afforded. In every tension, in every battle, or in every war, the biggest victim is always the innocent people that are caught in between.
In an attempt to feel and understand their plight, a few friends and I went up to the coal mines in Selantik, Pantu to look for them and hopefully get the opportunity to talk to them and to understand their thought process especially after being caught up in this tension.
This was the same mine where an ‘expose’ was done by Channel News Asia regarding the harsh living conditions as well as an explosion which reportedly killed four people a couple of years back. The numbers, however, are disputed, as the locals are claiming that up to 18 lives were lost in the explosion.
However, we were informed that the North Koreans have been sent from the mines to different parts of the state and some rumoured to be sent home. We were informed that they are those who are sent to work in other mines around Mukah, and many are involved in construction including works for the Pan-Borneo Highway all around the state.
We did however interact with the locals in the area who came into contact and interact with them. A shopkeeper whose shop is frequently visited by them informed us that these North Koreans are polite people and never miss a payment for the stuff taken. They are well-mannered, discipline and delightful to converse with. Many of them speak Malay, and the rest can speak a commendable level of Mandarin.
Sadly, we were also informed of the tough life these miners face on a daily basis. Besides the hazardous and poisonous conditions they are exposed to on a daily basis, we were informed that they are paid a paltry sum of money for their efforts.
We were informed that they have a leader (like a kapitan) who is appointed to oversee their wages and welfare. So the whole sum of the salary will be paid to this ‘leader’, where allegedly a big sum is transferred back to North Korea, and only about RM100-200 is given to each of the workers on a monthly basis.
Their passports are also taken and their movement somewhat limited. Hearing all these made my heart sink. Seeing scars on the hands on the victims of the explosion somewhat gave me a glimpse of the pain and struggle they go through on a daily basis.
Back in Kuching, I even visited some construction sites where there were some North Koreans reportedly working. However, we were informed, that they had been rounded up a few days earlier.
Channel News Asia even went and labelled them as ‘state-sponsored slaves’. However disputed that label may be, no one can deny that the conditions that they are living, the ways they are being treated and made to work in dangerous conditions, somewhat fits in and display elements of human trafficking characteristics set by the UN.
North Korea is a strongly communist country, which means everything belongs to the government, technically also the income of its citizens, thus the reason why a large sum of their salary is allegedly being sent back.
The question that kept running through my mind was; were they forced here to work or was it their own prerogative to come in service of their ‘supreme leader’, or are they just here part of a ‘labour exchange’ just to make a living for themselves and their families?
Now, in the midst of the tension within our countries, many of them are unable to work and also reportedly harassed not just by officials and authorities, but also people like us who want to put them under a microscope and make their life some kind of spectacle, whether we intend it or not, just to satisfy our curiosity on the fact that these peoples actually exist in our country.
I myself admit am a culprit, my curiosity overshadowed the feeling of mutual respect and maybe their desire to be respected and be left alone. Hearing their stories, although from a third party, convinced me and reminded me how important it is to remember the importance of human rights and the basic need for dignity and understanding for our fellow beings.
No matter the tension, no matter the battle, the victims are always the innocent. Let us not forget that and treat them any less.
KELVIN YII is a special assistant to Stampin MP Julian Tan.
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