In an effort to prevent North Koreans working in China from defecting to South Korea, Pyongyang has instituted an intensive “ideological education” program designed to keep them in line, Radio Free Asia’s Korean Service has learned.
Instead of making a quick day-trip across the border to renew their 30-day permits to remain in China, North Korean workers now spend three or four days in the border city of Sinuiju on the Korean side as security forces attempt to ensure their loyalty to North Korea.
“In the past, the dispatched worker whose visa was close to expiration would travel from Dandong to Sinuiju in the morning, then return back later the same night, or the next day to return to work,” a source familiar with factories hiring North Korean workers in China told RFA. Dandong is a Chinese city that lies across the Yalu River from North Korea's Sinuiju at the main border crossing between the two allied countries.
Now, however, the workers are housed in a hotel as security forces make sure they remain loyal to North Korea and the hereditary regime of Kim Jong Un.
“The reason why these North Korean workers stay in Sinuiju for four days is because the North Korean security department wants to strengthen ideological education for the dispatched workers before returning them to China,” the source said.
When the workers arrive in Sinuiju they are held in isolation, the source said.
“Workers who arrive in Sinuiju, as well as other border cities, are isolated as a group in a facility, and they are reeducated and restricted from the outside world,” the source said. “The workers are not even allowed to call families who live in other cities including Pyongyang.”
The source added: “The workers traditionally have gathered all the little wages they earn to provide gifts for their families, but even this is not allowed.”
Life as a North Korean worker in China is already an exercise in isolation as they are restricted from going outside the factories where they work and are cut off from the outside world, the source said.
While the restrictions are designed to keep North Korean workers loyal to the state, the new re-education program is causing problems for their employers, said another Chinese source familiar with North Korean workers.
“Chinese manufacturers complained because these dispatched workers are frequently absent from their workplace for days,” the source said. “This has been happening more often now than before for those who cross the Yalu River for a short period of time in order to extend their visa.”
The source said the new ideological education program started after a recent case where 13 North Koreans working at state-owned restaurant defected en masse to South Korea.
Scrutiny on labor exports
North Korea has consistently claimed South Korean intelligence agents abducted the workers and demanded that they be returned to their loved ones at once. Pyongyang has also threatened to take strong actions against the South if its demands are not met.
Mass defections from North Korea are rare, but the restaurant defection was also notable because it appears that China allowed it to happen. Some analysts believe this is another sign of strain between the two communist allies. Friction between the two countries ratcheted up after China backed United Nations sanctions against North Korea when it exploded a nuclear device this year.
It’s unclear if the new restrictions on workers is a result of the restaurant defections, but Chinese industrialists are having to adjust to the new program.
“These manufacturers can’t easily find replacements, especially with cheap labor costs like the North Korean dispatched workers,” the source said. “All we can do is wait.”
North Korea, which has been placed under multiple and increasing United Nations economic sanctions for conducting banned nuclear and missile tests, has sought new revenues by sending its citizens abroad to earn hard currency in China, Russia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The workers receive only a fraction of their earnings, which go to Pyongyang's coffers, but the jobs are coveted as better than available at home in many cases.
These labor exports have drawn scrutiny from U.N. agencies and governments charged with upholding sanctions aimed at denying the Kim Jong Un regime the cash it needs to fund its illicit weapons programs. Several countries have taken steps to curtail the use of North Korean workers.
Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Jackie Yoo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.