North Korea is preparing to redeploy migrant workers to Russia to reestablish a much-needed source of foreign cash that had been put on hold due to concerns over the coronavirus crisis.
Sources in Vladivostok tell RFA’s Korean Service that North Korean authorities are drawing up plans to send the workers back, which would defy sanctions put in place by the UN to deprive Pyongyang of funds that could be channeled into its nuclear and missile programs.
“The North Koreans who withdrew last year because of [sanctions] are preparing to enter Russia again,” a Russian citizen of Korean-descent from Vladivostok told RFA on Wednesday.
“We expect that they will be dispatched as trainees and tourists,” the source said.
The sanctions mandated that migrant workers return to North Korea by Dec. 22 last year. In addition, countries cannot issue new work visas for North Koreans, but admitting workers on trainee or tourist visas allows Russia to claim it is not in violation of the sanctions.
“Last week, a senior official from the North Korean diplomatic office, someone I’ve known for a long time, asked me to look for a local company [in need of] North Korean labor,” the source said.
“[North Korea] might send us workers starting in May, so he asked me to look for jobs for them in construction, processing, manufacturing and agriculture,” the source added.
North Korea had been planning to send workers back to Russia earlier, but the coronavirus pandemic derailed that possibility.
“Most of the North Korean workers in Russia that left in December said they would return in the spring. This didn’t happen because of the unexpected coronavirus situation,” said the source.
To date, Russia has reported slightly more than 1,000 confirmed cases of the virus, while North Korea has yet to report a single case.
Experts believe it is very unlikely that the virus has not taken hold because Pyongyang has taken extensive measures to prevent its spread, including the quarantine of entire counties and the cancellation of major public events.
But the risks presented by the epidemic do not seem to be a major concern for North Korea or the companies in Russia that wish to hire its manpower.
“In fact, most Russian companies can’t wait to hire North Koreans. They prefer them because they make better workers and have more skills than Central Asians coming from places like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and their labor costs are lower,” the source said.
Another Russian of Korean decent in Vladivostok told RFA Thursday, “North Korean restaurants here in Vladivostok are currently open.”
The restaurants were once booming businesses in Asia and the Russian Far East, known more for their female entertainer-waitresses than the cuisine they serve. In recent times the restaurants were seeing tough times as the novelty has worn off and sanctions de-legitimized their workforces.
“The workers are expected to come back soon. In a little while there will be so many North Koreans here,” the second source said.
“I heard from a manager at one of the restaurants in Vladivostok that they’ll be dispatched soon. He claimed that they are now in preparations in Pyongyang and will begin arriving in May,” the second source added.
The second source said that the migrants will use education, training and tourist visas, and each have terms that the workers would need to satisfy to be deemed legitimate.
“The three-month tourist visa or the one-year training visa cost more because the workers must travel in and out of North Korea often to keep them valid,” said the second source.
“This is why most of the North Koreans can only work in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, because those cities are connected to North Korea by train,” the second source said.
But the coronavirus situation might delay the migrants’ return.
“It is doubtful that the North Korean workers can return in May, with the coronavirus situation ongoing,” the second source said.
“Russian restaurants have stopped operations and most factories and construction sites are temporarily closed,” the second source added.
“North Korea is facing a foreign currency crisis because of the sanctions and the coronavirus, but it is rushing to dispatch its workers anyway. It remains to be seen if they’ll really be back in May.”
RFA asked the UN Sanctions Committee about this issue, but has not received any response as of Friday evening.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.