[imText1]Employees from the Emperor Hotel in the city of Rajin in North Korea are said to make their livings by doing business in market places. The hotel is well known for its casino.
On the 13th day of this month I had an interview with a manager of the hotel, who I will call Kim Myung Chul (pseudonym, 42 years of age) for the sake of his safety. “The hotel has had much difficulty paying wages to its employees since it closed its casino in February,” he said. “It laid off about half of its 300 employees, and even some of the remaining half had to open restaurants near the hotel or start business in market places for their livings.”
The Emperor Hotel is a five star hotel founded by the Emperor Group in Hongkong that invested about 24 million dollars in it. It is well known for the finest casino in North Korea.
For the last two years, two high raking Chinese officials have lost a large sum of government money to the casino and the Chinese government complained to the North pressing it to close it. Thus, it was closed in February, and the hotel lost many Chinese tourists. The number of Chinese tourists had been almost 20 thousands a year before. Virtually the hotel is out of business now.
Chae Moon Ho, a former head of Traffic and Transportation Office of Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin, China squandered 3,510,000 yuan (more than 434,000 dollars) of government money in the casino and was sentenced to 8 year imprisonment at the first trial. Mr. Wang, a former superintendent of highway construction, wasted 870,000 yuan (about 107,000 dollars) of government money in the casino and was taken into custody.
After these incidents, the Chinese government had prevented travel agencies around Yanbian area from holding North Korean tourism in March this year. It lifted the ban last September.
The following is some excerpts from the interview.
– When did you start to work for the Emperor Hotel?
I have been working in the hotel since 2000. People in Rajin call it Bipa Hotel or the Five Star Hotel. When the hotel was first opened, it was run in a capitalistic way. Even hostesses from Russia and China were recruited. But they have all returned now because they could no longer get paid. It took 3 years to complete its construction. I heard that it had been intended to be a 30 story building, but it is 7 stories high because the Emperor Group cut spending. Visitors were usually foreign gamblers and those Chinese who enjoyed fish and other seafoods.
– How is business now?
Business situation became very tough after the Chinese stopped coming. Usually thousands of Chinese people visited for the summer, and Russian and Chinese gamblers constantly came and went. But since the casino was closed and the Chinese stopped coming, it has been difficult for the employees to be paid. The hotel even laid off half of its employees. At frist 300 people were recruited, but there are less than 150 employees now. Among them, less than 50, mostly janitors, cooks, Karaoche coordinators, massagists, come to the hotel to work.
– Does the owner not pay the employees?
I do not know. Even though the owner is Emperor Group from Hongkong, the employees are controlled by the Administrative Committee of Rajin city. I suppose that wages must be distributed by the civil authorities. Anyhow, I have not been able to be paid since last spring.
– What kind of people are employed in the hotel?
High ranking people were eliminated from the recruit lest they be contaminated by capitalism brought in by foreign gamblers. For example, Kim Il Sung University graduates, partisans, workers involved with law and national defense and their family members were all eliminated. Mostly tall and good looking people from Rajin were accepted.
– How are the employees paid?
At first, we were well paid. We were not rationed but received wages. Until 2000, I received 300 yuan a month. At that time, 1 yuan($0.1237) was equivalent of 25 Chosun(NK) won($0.0125), and rice was quite cheap. Hence 300 yuan made a sound pay. Moreover, we were fed three times a day and allowed to sleep in the hotel, which was considerable benefits for us. But while business was getting difficult, employees were being turned into 8.3 workers one after another. Finally, payment started to be incomplete from last February. We could just take three meals a day thanks to the money the 8.3 workers gave to the hotel.
– What is 8.3 worker?
The hotel forced some of its employees to earn money all by themselves and to give some part of it to the hotel. 8.3 worker is called so because Kim Il Sung ordered the system during a factory visit on a third day of August.
– How do 8.3 workers earm money?
Some workers opened restaurants near the hotel, and others merchandize in market places. There are people like me who are out here in China and do business with old customers. Chinese tourists like to eat fish and other seafoods in Rajin. That’s why 8.3 workers like to open seafood restaurants near the hotel calling them branch restaurants of the hotel. There are more than 10 such restaurants near the hotel. There are also a few souvenir shops. If they earn money, they give some of it to the hotel. Those who merchandize are just like that. If you give some money to the hotel every month, you are not required to go there to work.
– Does the money go to Emperor Group?
No. It goes to the Administrative Committee of Rajin city. The hotel is just a Work Place: we are not under the owner’s control. We are required to take permission from the Administrative Committee to work outside the hotel.
– Do 8.3 workers make much money?
It is advantageous for business to be an employee for the hotel. We do not pay such heavy taxes as ordinary merchandizers do. It is also easier for us to occupy stalls in market places than for ordinary merchandisers.
– What is people’s life like in Rajin recently?
Outsiders envy Rajin and Seonbong because they compose the free trade zone, but the situation is on the contrary. The government takes more from Rajin and Seonbong because of the free trade. Rice is also more expensive. They are good places for the rich to live in but not for the poor.