Rare signs of dissent by North Korean workers in China

About 3,000 North Korean workers in China expressed their frustration over unpaid wages and prolonged pandemic lockdowns.

North Korean workers
Photo courtesy: Roman Harak / Flickr

According to South Korea’s intelligence agency, “incidents and accidents” have occurred among North Korean workers overseas due to poor conditions, while researchers say workers from a North Korean military-affiliated trading company in China have shown rare signs of protests and unrest.

Two researchers affiliated with the South Korean government, one of them a former North Korean diplomat, said that about 3,000 North Korean workers in China expressed their frustration over unpaid wages and prolonged pandemic lockdowns by protesting last month.

A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry said they had no knowledge of the issue when questioned at a daily press conference on Thursday. The North Korean embassy in Beijing and its consular office in the Chinese border city of Dandong did not answer Reuters’ calls for comment.

The researchers said that large-scale protests by North Koreans are almost unprecedented, and it indicates that these workers are trapped in a conflict over their destiny: China wants to repatriate them to comply with UN resolutions and prevent defections, but North Korea wants to keep the number of workers there.

Pyongyang tightly controls its overseas workers, taking up to 90% of their wages for government funds, according to the 2023 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, which said they often face “forced labour conditions”.

The report said that some workers’ wages are withheld until they go back to North Korea, making them more susceptible to coercion and abuse by authorities.

The researchers said that conditions have deteriorated recently.

Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at a South Korean government-funded think tank, Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), said in an interview that North Korean workers at over 10 textile factories in Helong, a city in Jilin province near the border, held violent protests over unpaid wages.

Cho said that the wages amounted to about $10 million over four to seven years, and that North Korean government officials paid several months’ worth of salaries to the unhappy workers to resolve the conflict.

Ko Young-hwan, a former North Korean diplomat who now advises the South Korean unification minister, said in an interview that officials from the North Korean consulate in China went to Jilin province and tried to calm the situation after angry workers took some managers hostage.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) said in a statement in response to Reuters’ questions about unrest, “We are monitoring related movements as various incidents and accidents have been happening due to poor living conditions of North Korean workers sent overseas”, without giving details.

A 2017 U.N. Security Council resolution, which China supported, required that countries send back all North Korean workers by December 2019, on the basis that their labour was used to earn foreign currency for North Korea’s prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Beijing said at the time that it had sent back more than half but did not give a number. The U.S. State Department estimates that there are 20,000-100,000 North Koreans working in China, mainly in restaurants and factories.

South Korea’s unification ministry said in a report last year that China and Russia were still hosting North Korean workers despite the sanctions. The Russian government has said that COVID restrictions were making repatriations hard.

Cho and Ko did not reveal their sources for security reasons, but Ko said his sources included North Korean officials based in China.

The discontented North Korean workers, sent by a trading company run by the country’s military, have been unable to go home from China for several years because of COVID border closures, they said.

The NIS said that China and North Korea were discussing the issue of repatriating the workers, but no progress has been made so far.

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