16 North Korean computer programmers were last week found to have been working in Cambodia illegally and have been ordered to leave the country, according to local authorities.
In a move which comes just a few weeks after UN sanctions required member states to deport all DPRK citizens working in their territory, Cambodia’s General Department of Immigration (GDI) said the men had been working as “online software installation technicians” in the northwestern city of Siem Reap.
“They used tourist visas to enter the Kingdom and work without valid permits,” the city’s immigration police chief Chea Kimsan was quoted as having told local media.
The group had worked for a Chinese online gambling company out of an apartment on Krous Village Road in Siem Reap’s Svay Dangkum neighborhood, authorities said.
Arrested at 15:30 local time on Friday, they were fined and ordered to leave the country, where they had lived since September last year.
“We ordered them to leave Cambodia on their own by Tuesday,” Kimsan was quoted as having said. “North Korea has been sanctioned by the UN; the UN banned North Koreans from conducting business in countries that are members of the UN. As a UN member, we are bound to follow the world body’s decision.”
But despite Kimsan’s claims that the men “did not commit any other crime” than staying in the country illegally, their work for an online gambling company may also have played a role in their arrest and deportation.
A new law banning online gambling in the kingdom came into force on January 1, with Prime Minister Hun Sen having last month promised to make the practice “completely disappear” amid pressure from China, a close ally.
The deportees’ work in IT is likely to raise eyebrows internationally, too, with North Korea having long been known to use hacking and other forms of cyberattack to raise money for its weapons programs.
North Korean computer programmers are also known to have been among the thousands of DPRK citizens sent to work overseas every year, a practice that UN resolutions now prohibit.
Their skills have often seen them end up working on online gambling websites, a business once estimated by a South Korean organization to have earned the state over $800 million.
The U.S. has sought to clamp down on the business, with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act allowing for the designation of any individual who has “knowingly, directly or indirectly, engaged in, facilitated, or was responsible for the online commercial activities of the [DPRK], including online gambling.”
North Koreans involved in the trade in Southeast Asia have found themselves in legal hot water in the past, too.
Perhaps the most prominent was Ri Jong Chol, a DPRK citizen and reported online gambling operator who was expelled from Malaysia in 2017 following the murder of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s brother Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur earlier that year.
The expulsion of the 16 North Koreans also comes as Cambodia finds itself trapped between its long-close relationship with North Korea and its obligations under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions.
NK News in December reported that the kingdom appeared to be taking some steps to crack down on DPRK-run businesses, with several Pyongyang-linked restaurants having at least temporarily shut down.
Also closed for the time being is the formerly North Korean-run Grand Panorama Museum, located near the iconic Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap.
Opened in 2015, the museum was at the time reported to have been tied to North Korea’s Mansudae Overseas Projects (MOP), a UN-sanctioned group responsible for exporting architectural and artistic projects.
Despite these steps, however, the kingdom has appeared keen not to fully cut longstanding ties — rooted in a historical friendship between the DPRK’s founding President Kim Il Sung and longtime Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk — and is yet to submit a report to the UN regarding its implementation of sanctions.
North Korean vice foreign minister Ri Kil Song also visited the country during a tour of Southeast Asia last month, meeting with foreign minister Prak Sokhonn and inviting him to visit Pyongyang.