North Korea Threatens to Punish China-Based Workers Moonlighting for Local Companies

With cross-border trade on hold, many traders have taken up part time jobs to support themselves.
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North Korea Threatens to Punish China-Based Workers Moonlighting for Local Companies A man steps out of a restaurant in Gulou Village outside China's Dandong, Liaoning province, at the border with North Korea, in a file photo.

North Korea has banned its trade representatives in China from making money on the side to support themselves and will punish those who violate the restrictions for betraying the party and the country’s leader Kim Jong Un, sources in China told RFA.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, about 95 percent of North Korean international trade was with China and trade officials sent there lived relatively privileged lives, making deals with Chinese companies for goods to import into North Korea.

But since the beginning of the pandemic in Jan. 2020, Beijing and Pyongyang closed their border and suspended all trade. The trade representatives now found themselves stranded in a foreign land with no income.

To make enough money for food and rent, many found second jobs at local businesses.

“The North Korean delegation in Dalian is investigating the trends of trade workers this month,” a North Korean trade worker in the city about 170 miles west of North Korea told RFA’s Korean Service Aug. 10.

“They want to identify trade officials who are doing business at the request of Chinese companies or working for them temporarily to make personal money,” said the source who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“The investigation began when someone reported to the central government that many of the North Korean trade officials in China, who had been suffering from economic difficulties due to their income being cut off with the long-term suspension of trade for the coronavirus, started working temporarily for Chinese companies to make money,” said the source.

“In fact, a significant number of trade workers in China do temporary jobs, such as delivering food for Chinese restaurants, to earn the monthly rent for their homes,” the source said.

After learning that many trade officials were moonlighting, the North Korean authorities ordered that all of those found to have done temporary work should be punished.

“They said that the trade workers were dispatched overseas on behalf of the motherland and doing low-skilled trivial work for Chinese restaurants undermines the pride of the country,” said the source.

Another North Korean trade worker, based in Dandong, which lies across the Yalu River border from North Korea’s Sinuiju, confirmed to RFA that investigations into trade representatives, trade workers and interpreters there were underway there also.

“North Korea authorities are concerned that the trade workers who are facing hardship due to the suspension of trade could move to another area of China to find a temporary job or do chores to make money without reporting it. They could then be absorbed into hostile forces,” said the second source, using a catch-all term meant to describe anyone not under the direct control of the North Korean regime.

“The authorities say that if trade officials and trade workers meet with anyone to make a personal request because they are having a hard time making a living, it can compromise security to the point that it could even be an unknown betrayal of the party and the leader with fatal consequences,” the second source said.

“I don’t know how many trade workers will be caught in the investigation, but I’m very concerned about how it will end, at a time when there are very few people who have never worked for Chinese companies or restaurants in times like these.”

Though most cross-border trade between North Korea and China is on hold, RFA reported in April that shipments of Chinese corn were delivered to North Korea by rail. The development led many to believe that trade between the two countries could resume soon, but the suspension remains in place.

Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Jinha Shin. Edited by Joongsok Oh. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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