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North Korea Doesn't Evacuate Its People From Libya

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North Korea Doesn't Evacuate Its People From Libya

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North Korea Doesn't Evacuate Its People From Libya

North Korea Doesn't Evacuate Its People From Libya

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About 200 North Koreans work in Libya. North Korea is resisting their return, fearing they'll foment a revolution based on what they've witnessed in Libya. Steve Inskeep speaks with journalist Sebastian Strangio, who has just written about this for Foreign Policy magazine.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Of course, hospital workers are just some of many foreign workers in Libya. A few months ago, they were believed to number well over one million, ranging from American oil workers to Egyptian laborers. And then, of course, there are the North Koreans. Journalist Sebastian Strangio has been following this aspect of the story for Foreign Policy magazine. He's on the line.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. SEBASTIAN STRANGIO (Journalist, Foreign Policy magazine): Hi.

INSKEEP: How did North Koreans end up in Libya and how many of them are there?

Mr. STRANGIO: Well, we know of about 200 to 300. The reports differ. I mean North Korea has relationship with Libya going back to the '70s; Gadhafi has been described as one of the Revolutionary comrades of Kim Il-sung. And North Koreans were sent to work as cut-price doctors, construction workers, nurses. And this has been going on for a number of decades.

INSKEEP: When you say one of the revolutionary comrades of Kim Il-sung, that's the father of the current ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong-il. The Moammar Gadhafi has been around that long?

Mr. STRANGIO: Yeah, that's right.

INSKEEP: In spite of what we just heard about the hospital workers, it seems that a great many foreign workers have left Libya, some of them have just practically walked out to get home to Egypt. Americans and the British and others have sent planes or boats to get their people out. What about the North Koreans?

Mr. STRANGIO: The North Korean government has ordered their ex-pats that are currently in Libya to remain in Libya. A lot of analysts have been suggesting that the North Korean government is concerned that these people, after having witnessed the uprising against Gadhafi, would spread these ideas and that would somehow pose a danger, you know, perhaps a copycat revolution in Kim Jong-il's regime.

INSKEEP: Maybe this is a good moment to remember how isolated North Korea's people are. What sources of information, if any, do they have about the outside world?

Mr. STRANGIO: Well, in the last I'd say decade or so, things have begun to open up - only in relative terms obviously. One of the main forms of communications in recent years has been Chinese cell phone networks, which can reach inside North Korea to a certain extent along the border. And a lot of defector organizations, media organizations use these networks to get information in and out of the country.

INSKEEP: Do you have any sense about whether North Koreans at large may have at least some information about the Arab Spring uprisings?

Mr. STRANGIO: There's been nothing reported in the state-run media. The one thing that they did run a lot of stories on was the NATO bombings. They denounced the NATO bombings as a Western - an example of Western imperialism against Gadhafi's regime.

But I mean it would be pretty hard for North Koreans, who are not close to the border with China, to have information about what's going on there.

INSKEEP: So the fact that North Korea has not taken back their foreign workers from Libya, gives analysts some suspicion that North Korea is worried about revolution spreading to North Korea.

Are there other signs that the North Korean government is a little bit concerned about an uprising on its own soil at this moment?

Mr. STRANGIO: You know, ever since information has been getting in and out of the country over the last decade, they've been cracking down increasingly on border controls, and on the possession of Chinese cell phones, and things like that. Since the start of the year, since things kicked off in Egypt, it seems that they've tightened the noose on these fronts. They've collaborated with the Chinese to restrict border crossings, which are, you know, a source of a lot of smuggling and information getting in and out.

There was a footage that surfaced recently of a trial in a border town. And the person on trial was accused of possessing South Korean songs and TV shows. And I think that really shows you the extent to which they're cracking down just at the moment.

INSKEEP: Sebastian Strangio has written about North Korean workers in Libya for "Foreign Policy" magazine. He spoke with us from his base in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Thanks very much.

Mr. STRANGIO: All right. Thanks, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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