North Korea’s regime has been withholding salaries from its overseas workers under the pretext of securing funds to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party next month, though their overseers are receiving payment as usual, according to sources.
North Koreans sent to China to bring in cash for the regime said handlers had failed to pay “several months” of salaries to their workers and forced them to take part in a “Foreign Currency Earning for Loyalty” campaign ahead of the Oct. 10 celebrations marking the founding of the party in 1945.
“It’s been four months and counting, and I haven’t received any of the salary [for living expenses] that the authorities promised,” one woman, dispatched from Pyongyang to Hunchun city in northeast China’s Jilin province, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“There has been a growing uneasiness among the workers, as there is no official word on when they will be paid the money that is due them,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Typically, North Korea’s foreign currency earners turn over their “salaries” to their handlers and receive a stipend for living expenses which, while meager, allows them to meet their daily needs and even send some money home to their families.
According to the source, around 120 female workers—most of whom are aged 18-23 and from factories in North Korea’s South Pyongan and North Hwanghae provinces—were relocated to China's Hunchun city early this year with the promise of U.S. $100 per month in living expenses, but had so far only received 100 Chinese yuan (U.S. $16) in May.
She and the other women are barely able to make ends meet, and have been surviving on the daily necessities, medicines and cosmetics they took with them when they left North Korea, the source said.
In August, nine women refused to work in protest over non-payment of their salaries and met with the on-site supervisor, demanding that he hand over what they were owed and send them back home, she said.
The security officer in charge convened a “Judgment General Assembly,” but began berating the women during the proceedings, saying their compatriots back in North Korea were “working like hell, both day and night, with their belts tightened, to ensure the anniversary of the Workers’ Party is a success.”
He questioned whether they were aware of how lucky they were to eat rice three times a day and suggested they would be punished if they returned to North Korea as “those who refuse to sacrifice themselves for the country will be sent to prison after going through labor training,” the source said.
Terrified by the threats, the female workers immediately returned to their workplaces, she said.
A middle-level manager of a North Korean agency charged with earning foreign currency, who also declined to provide his name, told RFA that salaries were only being distributed to the top ranks of the detail.
“Not only the workers, but also we middle-level managers haven’t received any salary for the past several months leading up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party,” said the source, who is currently working at a manufacturing company in Jilin’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture.
Chief supervisors and security officers are paid their monthly salaries as usual, he said, adding that the practice had soured relations with workers.
Reports in recent months indicate that North Korea’s regime has badly miscalculated the country’s readiness to mark the founding of its ruling party.
In August, sources said that the regime issued a directive for each household to pay about 40 yuan (U.S. $6.30)—a small fortune in the impoverished nation—for People’s Army soldiers who are training for a military parade and helping to build new construction projects to celebrate the anniversary.
Also last month, sources told RFA that authorities in North Hamgyong province were punishing misdemeanors—such as riding bicycles without bells—with labor duty as they race to complete unfinished development projects ahead of the anniversary.
According to other sources, it was only in May that supreme leader Kim Jong Un had ordered “special gifts” to be distributed nationwide ahead of the Oct. 10 celebrations, which the North Korean cabinet had decided would be tablet PCs or other high-tech electronic goods.
However, the regime withdrew its plans in August “due to a mix-up in North Korea’s rare-earth exports” that left it unable to afford importing parts needed for the electronic products from abroad, the source said, adding that the public is more likely to receive electronic watches, rather than the rumored tablets.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Changsop Pyon. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.