North’s overseas footballers may be funding weapons

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North’s overseas footballers may be funding weapons

North Korea’s professional footballers playing abroad may be generating foreign currency for the regime’s weapons programs and should be repatriated, United Nations experts say.

A new report from a UN panel of experts obtained by The Associated Press cited three players in particular - Han Kwang-song, Pak Kwang-ryong and Choe Song-hyok - whose careers on international teams constitute as violations of a UN order mandating member states repatriate all North Korean laborers by Dec. 22, 2019.

UN Security Council Resolution 2397, unanimously adopted in December 2017 in response to North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile the previous month, mandated the repatriation of North Korean overseas workers earning income abroad within 24 months, with some humanitarian exceptions.

Per that order, North Korean professional football players should have been repatriated by late 2019, the report said.

Han played for the Italian team Juventus before being recruited as a forward for the Qatari club Al-Duhail in January. Pak is a striker for SKN St. Polten in the Austrian Football Bundesliga, while Choe is a midfielder signed up with the Italian Serie C club Arezzo, though his contract ended in January.

Austria reported it has begun procedures to revoke Pak’s work permit in line with the order, but Qatar and Italy’s football leagues have yet to issue responses, the report said.

Not much is known about the exact salaries these players receive from their teams, but the German website Transfermarkt, which lists football statistics and player values, estimated in January that Han, Pak and Choe’s yearly salaries amounted to several million euros.

But the Spanish sports outlet Marca reported in January that there were suspicions that the North Korean government took away most of Han’s salary save for around 1,600 euros ($1,740). Han’s agency denied the report.

According to the UN experts, at least 1,000 North Koreans were working IT jobs abroad last year, earning around $5,000 a month. At least $1,700 of these workers’ monthly salary is believed to have been remitted back to North Korea, through which the regime is believed to have earned a cumulative $20.4 million per year.

A UN estimate in 2017 indicated there were over 100,000 North Korean laborers working overseas said to have earned $500 million annually. Most of these laborers, who often work long hours for low wages, were based in China and Russia.

Monitoring continues to be enforced with regards to whether member states are complying with the repatriation orders. But in multiple cases, the report said, workers were not repatriated after December but moved to third countries.

South Korea’s government said a more comprehensive update on the repatriation of North Korea’s overseas workers is set to be reflected in the UN panel of experts report in September. Only around 40 countries have so far submitted reports to the UN on the issue, meaning the number actually repatriated since the order went into effect remains unclear.

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