Plight of North Korean seamstresses evokes concern


The plight of some 50 North Korean seamstresses who are working legally in the Czech Republic but who are by all accounts being exploited by the embassy of the totalitarian North Korean state is now filling the front pages of all Czech dailies. Daniela Lazarova has been following the story and joins me now in the studio. Daniela what's the situation exactly?

Korean seamstress in Skutec factory, photo: CTKKorean seamstress in Skutec factory, photo: CTK Well, this news story came to light when some of the locals signed a petition saying that these North Korean worker's rights were being violated and someone should help. Investigative reporters from the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes and Reflex magazine went to ascertain the facts and said the women were handing over almost all of their salaries to the embassy and were kept under tight supervision by embassy employees -not allowed to leave their communal quarters except on group outings or to go to work. Also, they are often said to have complained about being hungry. Of course, this caused enormous publicity and concern with TV crews arriving on the scene and the government's human rights commissioner saying that the Czech Republic should try and help these women.

But apparently the publicity backfired didn't it?

The attacked cameraman of the Czech TV, photo: CTKThe attacked cameraman of the Czech TV, photo: CTK That's right. The media interest must have put them under enormous pressure from the embassy because when a Czech TV crew tried to speak with them recently a group of these seamstresses attacked the cameraman physically - they tore the camera from him, damaged it and stole the tape. So some of them are now in trouble with the police - but an eye witness at the factory said they'd acted like cornered animals. Like people who felt seriously threatened. So in actual fact the publicity in the media has not helped their situation at all.

So how can they be helped?

Well, that's the problem -they are here legally and they refuse to speak about their circumstances so the Czech authorities have nothing to go on. I spoke to a lawyer this morning about what avenues were open -and basically: we can't help them unless they ask to be helped. As the government's human rights commissioner said the Czech Republic can and should be on standby to give them immediate asylum if they ask for it. But the fact is that the decision would have to come from them and it would be a very brave decision indeed because these women have families at home, may of them have children at home - and the need to protect them at all cost would be enormous. Czechs know that from their own experience in the past and I think that the attack on the Czech TV crew was just further proof of this - they were protecting themselves and their families from serious problems that we can only guess at. So it's a very complicated situation indeed.