VALLETTA, Malta, July 28 (UPI) -- Political turmoil and controversy in the North Korean government has prompted one of its best European allies to effectively begin deporting visiting workers from the communist nation -- reportedly as a diplomatic move intended to push for change in Pyongyang in light of its oft-criticized human rights record.
Earlier this year, the Mediterranean nation of Malta denied visa extensions for about 20 North Korean laborers when their work permits expired -- shutting down their employment opportunities and practically forcing them to leave the country, the South Korean Yonhap News Agency reported Thursday.
Malta's visa refusals appear to be a response to a campaign spearheaded by South Korea and human rights groups that raised concerns about potential North Korean "slave" labor abroad, which some critics say is benefiting Pyongyang far more than it is the visiting workers.
Multiple news reports have claimed that North Korean laborers in Malta, and perhaps elsewhere abroad, are being systematically abused by Kim Jong-un's regime. The workers reportedly only keep about a third of their pay, and the rest goes to the North Korean government -- which may be used to fund projects like its nuclear program.
"The EU is likely to make sure its members are not being used as sources funding North Korea's weapons development," An Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies, said.
"It seemed that the Maltese government did not pay much attention to such exploitation of North Koreans until media outlets in Malta began to cover related stories and calls began to rise to take responsible measures," a South Korean official told the Korean Times Thursday on condition of anonymity.
Many of the affected workers returned to North Korea after their visas were denied, but a few have defected to South Korea.
"I heard some of the North Koreans sought to land jobs at other construction companies after our management did not renew their contracts," one Maltese executive told the Times. "They now plan to go back to Pyongyang after having difficulties in extending their work permits."
"I've heard one of the defectors called an acquaintance to say he has entered an education program that helps him get accustomed to life in the South," a Maltese resident said.
The Korean Unification Ministry said some North Korean defectors left Malta for South Korea last year, but none have followed suit this year.
Malta is also the first member of the European Union to begin deporting North Korean workers in response to recent human rights worries -- but experts say it probably won't be the last.
"There will be a domino effect in the region, given that Malta is one of the smallest nations in the EU but has taken an exemplary step for bigger neighbors to follow," An Chan-il said.
Poland has said it's already stopped hiring North Korean workers, a practice that endured in that country for years.
Pyongyang has been under the international microscope for years about issues involving human rights, as well as for its often provocative nuclear weapons program.
A small, 120-square-mile nation, Malta is one of few governments worldwide that have formal diplomatic ties with North Korea. It is believed by many to be the EU nation with the best relationship with Pyongyang.