This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korea has ordered trade workers dispatched to China to pay “loyalty funds” ahead of a major national holiday, but few are able to pay because their work dried up when both countries closed the border early last year to combat the spread of coronavirus, sources familiar with trade issues told RFA.
The funds are due before the Day of the Sun, the April 15 birth anniversary of the dynastic regime’s founder Kim Il Sung (1912-1994), the most important holiday on the North Korean calendar.
Along with the birth anniversary of his son Kim Jong Il (1942-2011), called the Day of the Shining Star, on February 16, the two holidays solidify the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family and the country’s third-generation leader, Kim Jong Un.
The two birthdays bookend a two-month Loyalty Festival period, when in most years the country puts on mass games, military demonstrations and cultural events that draw large crowds.
But the government usually funds these celebrations by collecting so-called “loyalty funds” from the people.
“A few days ago, I heard a complaint from a North Korean trade worker, someone I have known for a long time, saying it’s hard to live with the pressure of the loyalty fund due April 15,” a Chinese citizen of Korean descent from the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang told RFA’s Korean Service Tuesday.
Under normal circumstances, those required to pay can afford the expense, but at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in Jan. 2020, Beijing and Pyongyang closed the Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade.
For North Korean trade workers in China, the moratorium on goods crossing the border has spelled economic doom. After living with no income for extended periods, the workers are complaining that they have no way of paying what their government is demanding.
“Since the border closure, which has been continuing for more than a year, most of the North Korean trading companies in China have stopped operations due to a lack of revenue. Some have even closed down,” said the source who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The source said that some of the traders are unable to pay their living expenses and have had to borrow money from their Chinese counterparts just to survive.
“It’s such a difficult situation. The North Korean authorities in February temporarily stopped making the trade workers pay their assigned amount each month as they had no jobs, but it looks like the leadership really is in urgent need of foreign currency. Even though they are aware of the situation, they are still making them pay for the Day of the Sun,” the source said.
“The head of a North Korean trading company, who is required to dedicate U.S. $10,000 in loyalty funds, said this was the first time that the party has been ruthless in its demands. He sighed, saying that he was growing increasingly afraid as the day draws ominously closer,” the source said.
Another Chinese citizen of Korean descent from Dandong, across the Sino-Korean border from North Korea’s Sinuiju, told RFA that it has been impossible for North Korean workers to earn money there as employment opportunities have dried up.
“The North Korean authorities are pressuring these workers to pay their membership fees for the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League, threatening that they would hold a membership-fee review session,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
The league is North Korea’s main youth organization, modeled after the Soviet Komsomol.
“The workers dispatched from North Korea have no work to do, so no matter how low they are paid for their labor, they will jump at anything to make money. It is difficult for the workers to make money for their own living expenses… But the authorities are hitting them up for the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League membership fees,” the second source said.
“Originally the youth league membership fee for young people was set at 10 percent of their wages, but now there there is no work, they have set the fee at 20 yuan (about $3). Each month they have to pay that in addition to the [Korean Workers’] Party membership fee of 100 yuan,” the second source said.
The second source said that the authorities recently exempted the trade workers from paying their monthly assignments due to the difficult living situation, but now they are suddenly applying more pressure for them to pay for the holiday.
“I don’t know how loudly they plan to celebrate the Day of the Sun, but it seems that the foreign currency situation of the North Korean authorities is very difficult right now, since they are so set on squeezing money from the trade representatives.”
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 second source said that according to unofficial statistics, 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. About 60 trade representatives manage these workers.
North Korea had been able to skirt the visa rules by sending workers to China on tourist visas, who would return to North Korea for renewal every three months. North Korea intended to continue the practice even after the December 2019 U.N. deadline, but the border closed down the next month, stranding many of them in China with no work and no income, according to the second source.