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Enraged N Korean workers in China beat factory manager to death: report

Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Released)
February 20, 2024

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

North Korean workers in China who reportedly occupied a factory last month to protest over unpaid wages took a monitoring officer hostage and beat a management representative to death, according to Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper.

About 2,000 workers dispatched by a trading company affiliated with North Korea’s Ministry of Defense occupied a medical manufacturing and seafood processing plant in the city of Helong, in northeast China’s Jilin province, on Jan. 11, the Yomiuri reported Saturday, citing North Korean sources. 

The North Korean workers, many of whom are former female soldiers in their 20s, were angry about long-term wage arrears and took hostage the Chinese company’s management representatives and monitoring personnel from Pyongyang, vowing to go on strike until they were paid.

The North Korean authorities mobilized consuls and state security officers to try to restore order, but the workers prevented them from entering the factory, said Yomuiuri, adding that the riot continued until the 14th of the same month, when the hostage management representative was beaten to death by the workers.

“It was the first large-scale protest by North Korean workers in China, and it brought to the surface the anti-authoritarianism of North Korean youth who refuse to accept slavery,” reads the Yomiuri report in part. 

The riots came after news that fellow workers who returned to the North last year had not received their wages upon their return, according to the Yomiuri. 

North Korean workers in Jilin province earn a monthly wage ranging from 700 to 1,000 Chinese yuan (approximately US$97 to $140). The North Korean companies dispatching these workers to China collect between 2,500 to 2,800 Chinese yuan (around US$347 to $390) per worker each month from their Chinese counterparts, leaving 700 to 1,000 Chinese yuan of that amount to the workers themselves.

However, the North Korean trading company that sent the rioting laborers took the full amount in the name of “fund needed to prepare for war,” when the border between North Korea and China was closed as a COVID-19 measure.

The total amount is said to have been in the millions of dollars, paid to the North Korean leadership and embezzled by company executives. 

North Korean authorities appeased the workers by paying them back wages, but also identified about 200 workers who led the riots and repatriated about half of them to the North.

The incident was reported to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to the Yomiuri. 

A North Korean source told the Japanese paper that those who led the riots will be sent to a political prison camp and punished severely. 

The Yomiuri’s report came after Ko Young-hwan, a North Korean diplomat-turned-defector, who is currently serving as special aide to South Korea’s Unification Minister, said last month that thousands of North Korean workers in China’s Jilin province had staged a series of strikes and riots at several factories since Jan. 11, protesting unpaid wages by the North Korean authorities. 

At that time, Ko claimed that the strikes and riots subsided on the 15th but also warned that strikes and riots are likely to return as funds to pay back wage arrears have dried up, forcing company North Korean executives and diplomats based in China to raise the necessary funds.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has also reportedly identified a large-scale mass backlash of North Korean workers in Jilin province, but China has not confirmed the claims.

Sending North Korean workers abroad is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, but with the closure of its borders due to COVID-19, some 90,000 North Korean workers have reportedly remained in China, Russia, the Middle East and Africa.