Pyongyang residents opt out of opportunities abroad

Kim Seong Hwan  |  2016-08-11 16:52
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As grievances over wage exploitation, forced labor, and suffocating surveillance suffered by North Korean workers dispatched abroad spread back at home, Pyongyang residents have grown increasingly apprehensive about pursuing such jobs.

Until just a few years ago, most workers sent overseas were from Pyongyang, but those numbers have been on a downward trend recently, a source close to North Korean affairs in China recently told Daily NK. People have learned that if you go abroad to work youll toil like a slave. This is why the number of applicants is dropping.

However, residents from provincial areas are stepping in to fill in the gap. The standard of living in other provinces is just so much worse compared to Pyongyang. Notwithstanding the appalling conditions awaiting them, they choose to go work abroad anyway, he explained.

Languishing in positions at moribund factories with patchy, meager remuneration, overseas work offers many the promise of a steady stream of foreign currency and, by extension, a new life upon their return to North Korea. These overseas jobs are so coveted, in fact, provision of hefty bribes is a prerequisite requirement for applicants.

In 2012, North Korea began excluding single persons from filling these positions because, lacking the leverage of a spouse and children back in North Korea, the authorities regarded them as more likely to defect. This led to a subsequent uptick in the marriage rate, emblematic of the unrelenting allure these positions hold for much of the population.

However, as marketization gains a stronger foothold, more people are finding more ways to make money within North Koreas borders, provided they have access to goods to hawk at the marketplace. This has greatly improved the standard of living for a large chunk of the population, which--taken together with abounding rumors of abject conditions and strict surveillance at worksites abroad for diminishing returns--challenges previously held beliefs about jobs abroad as a gateway to a better life.
 
Moreover, following the group defection of twelve North Korean restaurants workers and their manager from a restaurant in China, these shifting perceptions are more palpable, said a source in Pyongyang. 

Since Kim Jong Un's accession to power, there has been great emphasis placed on fearpolitik and guilt by association. In that political climate, who would want to send their children overseas? she pointed out.

Parents once saw working overseas as an opportunity to advance their childrens careers. Now, however, more worry theyd become nothing more than helpless targets for exacting surveillance.

This shift also applies to perceptions about laborers dispatched to Russia, where a local source familiar with North Korean affairs told Daily NK that Pyongyang workers now account for only about 40% of the North Korean workforce, markedly down from the majority stake they held before.

There are all kinds of people--everyone from those struggling to make ends meet to others who were having marital conflicts back home, this source continued. They say they knew they would have to work like slaves, but that they didnt know how bad it would be.

In fact, some who chose to go overseas to find a way out of their current difficulties find themselves mired in more. Workers dispatched to Russia are required to pay roughly 1,000 USD a month to the state, and for those who are unable to secure the funds, the debt continues to pile up unabated.

If workers cant pay the sum they get labeled, which essentially means that once youre back in North Korea, youre grilled on anything and everything by everyone from Party secretaries to State Security Department agents. [Knowing the severity of these implications], people go to drastic measures to find a way to make these payments. 

*Translated by Jiyeon Lee

 
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