Poor Conditions, Low Pay for North Korean Women Working in Mongolia's Textile Industry (Part 1)

Women from North Korea sent to Mongolia to earn foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime labor in difficult conditions, rarely see any of their monthly wages, and endure harsh treatment from their handlers, according to sources. As Mongolia’s struggling economy forces more people of working age to seek opportunities in South Korea and China, North Korea has sought to fill the gap by sending young women to labor in the country’s textile factories, mostly producing cashmere garments.

The women make up a small portion of the tens of thousands of workers North Korea sends abroad to generate cash for the regime, as it struggles under international economic sanctions leveled in response to the development of its nuclear weapons program.

The front of the Gobi cashmere factory, which employs 150 North Koreans. Photo: RFA

But while their numbers are few compared to groups of North Korean workers sent to other parts of the world, their experience abroad mirrors a larger trend of neglect by local company owners, exploitation by their North Korean superiors, and isolation from the communities they live in.

A reporter from RFA’s Korean Service recently traveled to Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar and, with the help of a local guide, discovered dozens of North Korean women working in two factories producing cashmere—expensive and labor-intensive wool used in garments for worldwide export.

“North Korean women are working in yarn factories—they produce only cashmere and don’t work on any other textiles,” said the guide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

According to the guide, the Mongolian companies that own the factories give the North Korean women cashmere products instead of monthly wages. “Then the North Korean authorities pay the families of these workers back home according to North Korean wages,” he added.

RFA’s reporter was turned away at the gates of one of the cashmere factories in central Ulaanbaatar, but not before a security guard confirmed that the owners employed around 40 North Korean women there. “Originally they had 100, but 30 returned to North Korea and another 30 workers were moved to another factory in the region some time ago,” the guide said, after speaking with the guard.

At the second cashmere factory, located just outside of the capital, a security guard reluctantly agreed to allow the guide to enter for around 20 minutes during the workers’ lunch break.

The guide said he encountered about 20 North Korean women aged 25-35 going to the cafeteria to eat lunch accompanied by an interpreter, adding that they “looked like children because they were so small” from malnutrition.

Third factory

At a third factory RFA visited, around 150 North Korean women are among some 1,300 workers producing textiles, the guide said, based on information provided to him by an employee who provided access to the facility.

The front of the Gobi cashmere factory, which employs 150 North Koreans. Photo: RFA

The women, who have been using sewing machines to make clothing at the factory for the past two years, had all signed on for three-year contracts, he added. “Before that, there were only Mongolian people [working here],” the guide said.

The factory employee explained through the guide that the North Korean women had all received three months of training when they first arrived, after which they officially began their jobs, and praised them as “hardworking and highly skilled.”

But when asked whether the workers received wages directly from the factory owners, the employee responded only by saying that he did not understand how their contracts work.

“He said he doesn’t really know because it’s something that the government takes care of,” the guide told RFA.

“He said it is something only his superiors know about. He only knows that [Mongolia’s] government hired these workers to help North Korea, but isn’t aware of any details.”

The women are provided with room and board by the factory, the guide said, but their North Korean handlers forbid them from going outside of their dormitory—even on nonworking days.

Poor treatment

A South Korean official with the Korean-Mongolian Community told RFA that North Korean workers in Mongolia are routinely “poorly treated” by their employers and superiors.

“Since they are not working on their own, but dispatched here from their country, they only receive a small portion of what they have earned, and most of their wages go to the authorities back home,” said the official, who also declined to provide his name.

He urged North Korean authorities to “be more flexible” and called on the international community to ensure that North Korean workers receive better treatment in places like Mongolia and other countries where they are sent to earn foreign currency for the regime.

“But in order for that to happen, we have to have a supportive political environment,” he added.

Reported by Jae-wan Noh for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.