North Koreans in China prohibited from traveling to Beijing during Winter Games

Pyongyang fears that their loyalty could be shaken by the Olympic spectacle, ‘hostile forces.’
By Hyemin Son
2022.02.10
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North Koreans in China prohibited from traveling to Beijing during Winter Games Passengers of a North Korean vehicle arriving at customs in Dandong, Liaoning Province, China, board the vehicle after inspection in this file photo
Yonhap News

North Korean workers in China are forbidden to travel to Beijing during the Winter Olympics, as Pyongyang is afraid they could get swept up in Olympic fever and “betray their homeland” by contacting South Koreans, sources in China told RFA.

In the Chinese city of Dandong, which lies across the Yalu River border from the North Korean city of Sinuiju, a consulate oversees thousands of workers dispatched by the government of Kim Jong Un to China to earn desperately needed foreign currency.

North Korean trade workers make deals with Chinese businesses to procure goods to ship into North Korea, or to provide laborers for factory work.

Business during the coronavirus pandemic has been rough. With factories shut down and trade with North Korea suspended from January 2020 to last month, many of the workers can’t even cover their own living expenses in China. The Olympics could reveal to them how much better off the rest of the world is.

This is why the consulate last week told everyone not to travel long-distance until the Feb. 4-20 Olympics are over, a North Korean trade worker in Dandong told RFA’s Korean Service.

“If they have to travel outside of Dandong, even if they need emergency supplies to send back to the homeland, they need to report their intention to travel to the consulate in advance, show their train ticket reservation, and inform the consulate who they will meet and the time and place of the meeting,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“They underscored that travel to Beijing and the surrounding areas, where the Winter Olympics are happening right now, is strictly prohibited. If there’s an urgent need to meet with a Chinese counterpart in or around Beijing, they must travel under the supervision of a companion designated by a state security agent,” he said.

The consulate in Shenyang, which is within the same province as Dandong, requires trade workers there to report on their activities daily, a source familiar with the consulate told RFA.

“They have to report the details of who they met and what they did each day through the end of the Winter Olympics,” the second source, who also requested anonymity for security reasons, said.

“Family members of North Korean trade officials stationed in China are also being closely monitored to make sure their movements and ideological conditioning are not heading towards Beijing,” the second source said.

Pyongyang is afraid that the spectacle of the Olympic Games could be alluring to the North Koreans in China, the second source said.

“The consulate warned that if a family member of a trade official is caught travelling to Beijing to watch the Winter Olympics, the trade official and their whole family will be punished as anti-party counter-revolutionaries,” he said.

“They fear that the trade officials and their families might come in contact with hostile forces, including people from South Korea, and this could cause them to betray their motherland during the Winter Olympics,” the second source said.

With the trade officials themselves having trouble making ends meet right now, “their ideology could easily be shaken,” the source said. “Their motivations could easily be bought by hostile forces such as South Korea, so the North Korean authorities continue to closely monitor their movements”

There are an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 North Koreans working in China, according to the U.S. State Department's 2021 Trafficking in Person's Report.

North Korean labor exports were supposed to have stopped when United Nations nuclear sanctions froze the issuance of work visas and mandated the repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019.

But Pyongyang sometimes dispatches workers to China and Russia on short-term student or visitor visas to get around sanctions.

North Korea announced in January that it would not send athletes to the Beijing Olympics due to the coronavirus and what it called “hostile forces.”

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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