This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean overseas workers stranded in China by a border closure imposed to fight coronavirus are facing a dire situation as the pandemic has caused their job prospects to dry up, sources in China told RFA.
One of North Korea chief foreign currency-earning methods is to dispatch workers overseas, then collect the lion’s share of their salaries.
However, North Korean labor exports were supposed to have completely stopped when United Nations sanctions froze the issuance of work visas and mandated the repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019.
The sanctions are aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash to fund its prohibited nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Though many North Koreans returned home prior to the deadline, North Korea has been known to dispatch workers abroad on short-term student or visitor visas to get around sanctions.
The North Korean workers currently in China are mostly women who arrived to take up textile factory work at the end of 2019 in this manner, on six-month visas. But in January 2020, Pyongyang and Beijing closed the Sino-Korean border to stop the spread of coronavirus. Now stranded, the women continued to work, but then the coronavirus shuttered the factories employing them.
“These days, the North Korean workers in the Donggang area of Dandong have no work to do, so trade officials are contacting their Chinese counterparts and begging for work,” a Chinese citizen of Korean descent from Dandong, just across the border from North Korea, told RFA’s Korean Service Wednesday.
“Work temporarily flooded in around the Lunar New Year holiday, but after the holiday passed there was a sharp drop-off, so the North Korean workers can’t make ends meet now,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
According to the source, the women in Dandong were originally sent to work for a clothing manufacturer for what was supposed to be six months. Once the coronavirus hit, they became stranded and continued to work.
“As the coronavirus spread all over the world, starting here in China, many factories in northeastern China also shut down because of a sharp drop in orders. Either that or they stopped operating because of quarantine measures,” said the source.
“So, the number of factories that can take in North Korean workers are now few and far between. So, these workers can only fill part of their foreign currency assignments by doing any work they can find to make money,” the source said.
The source said that North Korean trade officials have been asking for help in finding work for the women, and that even providing room and board for them has been difficult lately.
“The trade official said that Chinese companies, that used to consistently provide jobs, do not give them any work because they are in their own difficult situation. He said that it has been overwhelming to feed and provide clothing for the workers, to say nothing about their foreign currency obligations to the party. He offered me a commission if I can find a job for them,” the source said.
Another source, a Chinese citizen of Korean descent from Shenyang, 126 miles northwest of Dandong, confirmed to RFA Thursday that North Korean trade officials there are also desperate to find work for their charges.
“They are begging for work, saying that the labor costs are low, and they will take anything,” said the second source who requested anonymity for safety reasons.
“But right now, even we Chinese are unable to work, as we can’t move freely between regions because of the quarantine measures. In such a situation, who can take responsibility for a production stoppage if they hire North Koreans who might have to withdraw as soon as the pandemic situation gets better?” said the second source.
The North Korean officials are promising that they will not simply withdraw immediately when the border reopens, according to the second source.
“They are so desperate that they even agreed to write a memorandum that if they have to withdraw due to visa issues, they will send another manpower unit so as not to interfere with production.”
According to a third source who declined to be named, an estimated 100,000 North Koreans had been in China prior to the sanctions deadline, but now there are only about 2,000 to 3,000 in and around Dandong.