North Koreans in China struggle as work disappears

Strict coronavirus lockdowns mean fewer jobs, worse meals for immigrant labor force.
By Jieun Kim
North Koreans in China struggle as work disappears This file photo shows North Koreans on their way to work in Jilin province, China.
Yonhap News

North Korean workers dispatched to China to earn cash for Pyongyang are struggling to make ends meet, with coronavirus lockdowns crimping the job market, sources in China told RFA.

Cash-strapped North Korea sends workers to countries like China and Russia to earn foreign currency for the ruling party. The companies that employ them pay much higher salaries than what they could ever hope to earn in North Korea, but their North Korean handlers collect the lion’s share, leaving them with only a fraction.

Under normal circumstances, Pyongyang can earn a lot of money this way. But renewed coronavirus lockdowns in the Chinese border city of Dandong, across the Yalu River border from North Korea’s Sinuiju, mean there are many North Korean employees in the city and very little work.

“These days, just as in large cities like Xi’an, confirmed coronavirus cases are spiking in the Dandong area, causing a major setback in the production and distribution of products,” a Chinese citizen of Korean descent told RFA’s Korean Service Jan. 9.

Xi’an, a city of 13 million people in central China, began a lockdown last month as part of a “Zero-COVID” policy. Other cities, including Dandong, have also begun similar lockdowns.

“Food processing, garment, and electronics factories, where many of the North Koreans work, have been shut down since early December. The North Korean workers have been hit hard,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“These days, the North Koreans here in Dandong can’t even make enough money for their housing, to say nothing of earning foreign currency,” the source said.

The lockdown is also hurting some Chinese business owners. Sometimes the businesses agree to provide food and lodging.

“They used to make a lot of money by hiring the North Koreans for peanuts, but now they have to pay for the lodging and meals for these workers even as their factories are shutting down,” the source said.

Sometimes it’s the North Korean company that manages the workers that takes the hit.

“I know a guy who manages the North Korean workers. He’s visiting his Chinese counterparts these days, begging them to offer some work. He says their housing and food is not guaranteed and they need money. He even promised they would work for minimum wage, if they give the workers a job, any job at all,” the source said.

Under normal circumstances, the North Koreans in China have higher standards of living than they do back home, the source said.

“They eat much better compared to their home country. They can eat not only rice, but meat, fish, eggs, and all kinds of vegetables. But now since they are not earning money, the quality of their meals has greatly declined,” said the source.

“The Chinese authorities, ahead of the Winter Olympics in early February, have ordered strong quarantine policies. They are shutting down cities limiting movement. This is why the small factories near the border with North Korea are not all in operation.”

Another Chinese citizen of Korean descent told RFA that North Korean workers used to eat well in cafeterias of the factories where they work. But now “all they get are pieces of bread in the morning and cabbage soup with rice for lunch and dinner,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“These workers leave their homeland and their families behind to work abroad. The one good thing they have is that they can eat better over here. But not these days because they aren’t able to work,” the second source said.

In cases where the North Korean human resources company is responsible for housing and feeding the workers, the managers have to cut costs by giving them food of lesser quality.

There are an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 North Koreans working in China according to the U.S. State Department's 2021 Trafficking in Person's Report.

RFA previously reported that North Korean workers earn approximately U.S. $400, of which only US$100 is paid to individuals, and the rest is deducted sent back to North Korean authorities.

North Korean labor exports were supposed to have stopped when United Nations nuclear sanctions froze the issuance of work visas and mandated the repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019.

But Pyongyang sometimes dispatches workers to China and Russia on short-term student or visitor visas to get around sanctions.

Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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