North Korean workers in China are doing their utmost to earn extra income before they are forced to return home under tough international sanctions imposed on their nation for recent nuclear tests and missile launches, a source in China with knowledge of the situation said.
The isolated country has exported workers abroad for years, and requires them to remit much of their earnings to the North Korean government, which is believed to use the cash to fund its illicit weapons programs.
Most North Korean 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 regime of leader Kim Jong Un takes its cut.
Though a large number of North Korean workers in China have already returned home, those who are still there are eagerly trying to earn additional yuan by working as many extra hours as they can before they are forced to leave, the source said.
The remaining workers and their supervisors are keeping the extra foreign currency for themselves, and not turning a portion of it over to the North Korean regime as they are required to do, he said.
“The amount of their [regular] income is already reported to North Korean authorities, so managers, security officers, or workers can’t individually keep a penny more,” said the source who declined to be named.
“They ask their Chinese employers to let them work extra hours after their regular eight-hour shifts, and by doing so they are able to increase their personal income by receiving compensation for the overtime hours,” he told RFA’s Korean Service.
“Chinese employers are well aware of North Korean workers’ pitiful circumstances, so they are letting them make extra money for two to three months before they return home,” he added.
Most North Koreans in China work after dinner until midnight at sewing factories or food processing factories, and split the extra money they earn fifty-fifty with their supervisors, who do not report the additional income to North Korean authorities, he said.
“The ratio is absolutely advantageous to managers, but the workers are just thankful because they do not have power to influence Chinese employers,” the source said.
North Koreans in China make an average monthly salary of 700 to 800 Chinese yuan (U.S.$110-$126) during an eight-hour shift, but they receive only 400 to 500 yuan (U.S. $63-$79) for themselves after handing over the rest to their government, he said.
By working extra hours, they can earn more than they do in their regular monthly salaries, he said.
“Chinese employers who are aware of their difficult situations fully cooperate with the workers by letting them work extra hours at night and compensate them,” the source said.
“It wouldn’t be good if North Korea found out about their [after-hours] foreign currency earning activities,” the source said. “However, managers and workers all desperately want personal income, and they have a mutual understanding, so it seems like it is working without any obstacles.”
Even more sanctions
About 100,000 North Koreans working abroad send some U.S. $500 million in earnings to Pyongyang annually, according to an estimate by the United Nations.
In September, the U.N. Security Council adopted resolutions prohibiting countries from accepting North Korean workers in response to a nuclear test the North conducted earlier that month.
Three months later, the Council unanimously passed an additional resolution, drafted by China and the United States in response to a ballistic missile launch that Pyongyang said was capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, requiring all North Korean workers abroad to return home within two years.
On Friday, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump announced new sanctions targeting nearly 60 ships and maritime transport companies registered in North Korea and other countries including China, in an effort to stop the North from evading U.N. sanctions restricting oil imports and coal exports.
“[The U.S.] Treasury [Department] is aggressively targeting all illicit avenues used by North Korea to evade sanctions, including taking decisive action to block the vessels, shipping companies, and entities across the globe that work on North Korea’s behalf,” said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in a printed statement.
“This will significantly hinder the Kim regime’s capacity to conduct evasive maritime activities that facilitate illicit coal and fuel transports, and erode its abilities to ship goods through international waters,” he said.
“The president has made it clear to companies worldwide that if they choose to help fund North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, they will not do business with the United States,” he said.
Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.