North Korean Workers Return to China in Defiance of UN Restrictions

Busloads of workers are seen going into China, with fewer seen making the return trip.

Trucks move across a bridge connecting North Korea with the Chinese port city of Dandong in a file photo.

North Korean laborers barred under U.N. sanctions from working abroad are now moving back into China in an apparent violation of restrictions aimed at punishing Pyongyang for its illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs, sources along the border say.

Though workers formerly sent into China to earn foreign currency for North Korea’s cash-strapped regime are still under U.N. orders to return home, no new lines of returning workers are being seen, sources working on the border say.

Instead, North Korean workers have been observed entering China in defiance of the rules, they say.

“This week, on April 2, around 400 female North Korean workers were sent to Helong city in [Jilin province’s] Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture,” an ethnic Korean living in Yanbian told RFA’s Korean Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It seems like Kim Jong Un’s recent visit to China is showing some results,” the source said, referring to an anticipated relaxation of trade restrictions in response to recent China-North Korea diplomatic contacts.

Speaking separately, a source in China’s Dandong, a port city lying on the Yalu River across from North Korea, told RFA he had seen a group of buses carrying North Korean workers arrive on March 30 from North Korea’s Sinuiju city, just across the border.

“They had young women on board who appeared to be North Korean workers,” RFA’s source said, also speaking on condition he not be named.

“The buses crossed the Yalu River’s railway bridge and dropped the workers off at the Dandong customs post,” he said, adding, “There appeared to be roughly more than 100 of them.”

'Ready to be assigned'

North Korean workers crossing the border into China can enter the country only with a border pass called a River-Crossing Pass, issued by the North Korean government, the source said.

“According to an agreement between North Korea and China, these passes are supposed to be valid for only 30 days, but North Korea issues passes valid for periods of from six months to a year, and China does not argue over this extended period of validity,” he said.

Meanwhile, China-based North Korean trade workers  visiting North Korea for end-of-year performance reviews are actively recruiting workers to send back to China, sources say.

“I have received multiple phone calls from traders in Pyongyang saying that workers are ready to be assigned, and asking me to find companies in which to place them,” one Chinese business partner of a North Korean trading firm said.

“”I had received calls like this even before Kim Jong Un’s China visit, but I’ve been getting even more of them recently,” he said.

In September 2017, the U.N. Security Council adopted resolutions prohibiting companies 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 requiring all North Korean workers in other countries to return home within two years.

The resolution was 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.

Reported by Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.