Human Smuggling Ticks Up Along the China-North Korea Border

2016-07-27
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North Koreans ride a boat on the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, as seen from across the river from the Chinese border town of Dandong, Feb. 9, 2016.
North Koreans ride a boat on the Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, as seen from across the river from the Chinese border town of Dandong, Feb. 9, 2016.
AFP

Lured by the promise of relatively higher wages, more and more North Koreans are making the risky and illegal border crossing into China, sources tell RFA’s Korean Service.

A North Korean resident, who only revealed his last name Choi, said he’d recently crossed the Tumen River acting as a coyote for three North Korean agricultural workers.

“We brought three North Korean laborers to work through autumn season, in order to help the Chinese people,” Choi told RFA. “We earn about 200 Yuan (U.S. $33.30) from the Chinese people for each person.”

The same three laborers made the sometimes treacherous crossing last year to take jobs caring for cattle on Chinese farms, Choi said. Laborers in China make between 15 yuan to 20 yuan (U.S. $2.50 - $3.30) a day depending on which job they do, Choi said.

An illicit labor market

While crossing the border is generally illegal, an illicit system has grown up for the importation of laborers, Choi told RFA.

“We take orders from the Chinese people who request laborers through illegal phone calls,” Choi explained. “Then we choose four to six North Korean laborers who live poorly, to ferry across the Tumen River together. The laborers who cross over to China work there through autumn harvest and then return afterwards.”

A source from Yanggang province, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that there are currently more North Koreans seeking to cross the border into China than those seeking to defect to South Korea.

“The labor income is already arranged for North Korean laborers wanting to go to China to work for money.”

The Changbai District of China’s Jilin province lies across the river from North Korea’s Yanggang province and is home to a large number of soybean farms that are looking for laborers, the source said.

For the past couple of years, many North Korean laborers cross into China during the spring season and work on the bean farms through autumn harvest season. They earn about 2000 yuan (about $330) for their work from spring through the harvest season.

While the North Korean authorities are reinforcing a system to mobilize all residents for the new ”200-Day Battle” that takes laborers away from the Chinese fields.  North Koreans working in factories can be excused from work easily by paying 3 yuan (U.S $0.50) a day allowing them to bribe their way out and still make money, said a source from Yanggang province.

Active recruiting

These days, brokers are actively recruiting laborers to work in China, at local markets, said the same source.

The source told RFA that security around Yalu River has been loose due to the high water level, allowing more smuggling.

North Koreans living in the frontier, who are desperate for a living, earn about 12 Yuan ($2) for ferrying a smugglers load across the Yalu into China.

While there appears to be a ready supply of willing mules, the trip can be deadly reminder of the desperation of North Korea’s poor.

“Two residents of Songbong village lost their lives on July 2nd in Hyesan City [in Yanggang province], while crossing the Yalu River, carrying 40 kg (About 88lbs) of scrap metal,” he said.

Reported by Sunghui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jackie Yoo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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