First Group of North Korean Workers Leaves Mongolia Amid Sanctions

2017-12-27
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North Korean construction workers tile a wall at a site in downtown Pyongyang, March 2, 2017.
North Korean construction workers tile a wall at a site in downtown Pyongyang, March 2, 2017.
AP Photo

The first group of North Korean workers earning foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime in Mongolia has returned home following sanctions brought in response to Pyongyang’s most recent nuclear test, according to sources, who said most of the remaining laborers will have left by early 2018.

North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3 and claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb. Later that month, the United Nations’ Security Council adopted resolutions prohibiting any country from accepting North Korean workers in response to the test, and on Dec. 22 passed an additional resolution requiring North Korean workers abroad to return home within two years.

A source in Mongolia told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday that Mongolian authorities had stopped issuing one-year visa renewals for North Korean workers, who mainly earn foreign currency in construction in the country, and said that a group of them had recently left on a train from the capital Ulaanbaatar.

“North Korean workers got on a Beijing-bound train in Ulaanbaatar not so long ago,” he said, referring to the capital of neighboring China, where the workers will transfer and continue their journey home by rail.

“It seems like the rest of the workers will be pulled out by early next year.”

It was not immediately clear how many North Korean workers had left in the group.

The source, who is familiar with foreign investment in Mongolia and spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said that Mongolian authorities had asked the North Korean workers to leave to ensure that Ulaanbaatar was in compliance with the U.N.

“Due to the U.N. resolution, Mongolian construction companies are not able to sign new contracts with North Korean workers,” he said.

“Mongolia is in need of large-scale foreign investment, and it wouldn’t be easy to bring in investors if there are North Korean workers in the country.”

‘Faithful and skillful’

Firms in Mongolia began hiring large numbers of workers from North Korea in 2008 amid a construction boom, and Ulaanbaatar and Pyongyang reached an agreement to send as many as 5,300 North Koreans there over the next five years.

But the number of North Koreans in Mongolia has dropped annually since a high of more than 2,100 in 2013, when the country began dealing with an economic crisis. As of November 2017, nearly 1,200 North Koreans were employed in Mongolia.

Construction firms prefer to hire North Koreans because they work long hours for little money, a source in Mongolia’s construction industry told RFA.

Their North Korean handlers also routinely forbid them from leaving the construction sites, where they sleep and eat, enduring poor living conditions.

“North Korea workers were popular at construction sites because they were faithful and skillful,” said the source, who also asked to remain unnamed.

“[The workers] were hoping they might be allowed to stay in Mongolia up until the last minute before they left.”

According to a U.N. estimate from September, around 100,000 North Koreans working abroad send some U.S. $500 million in earnings to Pyongyang annually.

Most of the workers are stationed in Russia and China, where they regularly work more than 12 hours per day for wages they see as little as 10 percent of, after the Kim regime takes its cut.

Other North Koreans in Mongolia find work in cashmere factories and as acupuncturists or practitioners of Korean traditional medicine.

Reported by Jaewan Noh for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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