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North Korea still dispatching workers to China despite UN sanctions

Citizens in Pyongyang, North Korea. (fljckr/Flickr)
March 22, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea is continuing to send its citizens to work in China to earn cash for the state despite sanctions limiting the issuance of new visas. Sources say that groups of newly dispatched female workers are being spotted at Chinese customs stations along the North Korea – China border.

The sanctions, aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash to fund its prohibited nuclear weapons and missile programs, call for a freeze on new working visas for North Koreans and the complete repatriation of North Koreans currently working abroad by the end of 2019.

“I saw a group of [North Korean] female workers going to China, passing through customs again today. They were being dispatched to manufacturing companies in Hunchun, [a border city in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture located in China’s Jilin province,]” said a source from North Korea’s North Hamgyong province in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.

Workers returning to China on existing work visas after visiting North Korea would not be a violation of sanctions, but the source indicated that the group of women seemed to be first timers.

“[They] appeared to be in their early 20s, and groups of 20 or so were leaving together. Unlike existing workers who travel back to North Korea just to renew their visa, these women were carrying huge amounts of baggage,” the source said.

“It’s not uncommon for workers doing a visa run to travel without baggage because the visa can be replaced at customs and they would then be free to leave North Korea right away,” added the source.

While the source believed these were newly arriving workers, he did say it was possible that they had other purposes in China.

“[They] took a big bus that was waiting for them at the Hunchun customs station, but I don’t know where they were going. It’s not confirmed whether they are students leaving the country with an education visa or if they are labor force hired by Chinese companies,” said the source.

A second source, also from North Hamgyong noted that the sanctions seemed to be working until recently.

“It was quiet for a while bit it seems like they are sending workers to China again. I saw a group of female workers leaving for China today, passing through Namyang customs,” the source said.

“There were about 50 workers in the group. Most of them seemed like they are in their early 20s so they will probably work as seamstresses or as electronics assemblers. I can tell from the young women’s outer appearance that they wouldn’t [be sent to] work at the farms,” the source said.

Sending Labor overseas is of vital necessity to the North Korean regime as it is a major source of foreign cash. But the U.N. sanctions would put an end to the steady flow of income into North Korea from foreign sources.

“To comply with the UN sanctions, all our workers dispatched to China reportedly have to come back home by the end of June. However, overseas workers are raising funds for the Workers’ Party. Would they give up on sending workers overseas?” the sources said.

While the exact wording of the sanctions mandates that U.N. member nations repatriate all North Korean workers on existing visas by the end of 2019, the source was referring to an internal North Korean policy to bring back all the workers from China by the end of June.

“Not many groups of workers passed through customs for a while. However, groups of dozens of women are often spotted recently leaving the country. So it’s not a stretch to say that North Korean workers are still being sent overseas,” the source said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.