North Korean workers are returning en masse to North Korea from Dandong in China’s Liaoning Province in what some observers suggest is an outcome of the failure of the US-DPRK summit in Hanoi.
“In early March, Chinese authorities restricted the period in which North Koreans can reside in Dandong to just one week,” a source in China close to North Korean affairs told Daily NK. “North Korean employees of restaurants, saunas and other places all returned home in early March and even those working in clothing companies returned home.”
“The Chinese authorities are at the heart of this mass exodus back to North Korea,” he continued, referring to the fact that “Chinese authorities don’t place limits on how many times North Koreans can visit China, but they have demanded that people must renew their visas back in North Korea once their sojourn period has ended.”
After Kim Jong Un’s visit to China in March last year, the Sino-DPRK relationship warmed and large numbers of North Korean workers were sent to China for work. Just a year later, however, the situation has completely changed.
“The Chinese are restricting sojourn periods for North Koreans to only a month,” said a North Korean official who Daily NK met in China’s Dandong city. “Eventually, all the North Koreans in China will have to go back.”
“The first phase the Chinese are conducting involves shortening sojourn periods to just one month, while the second phase in May or June will likely involve restrictions on passes given out to people to cross the border for business or family,” said the official. “The last phase in December will involve everyone else returning.”
The Sino-DPRK relationship appeared to improve a great deal given the four summits that have occurred between the country’s two leaders over the course of a year, suggesting that the actions the Chinese authorities have taken are sudden.
Some observers believe that the failure of the US-DPRK summit in Hanoi and the ongoing US-China trade war are major factors.
“The failure of the US-DPRK summit seems to be the reason,” said the official. “The Chinese are in a trade war with the American [expletive] so they have to meet with them. They want to show the Americans that they are following UN sanctions so they are kicking our poor workers out.”
The official suggested that China is suffering from difficulties due to the trade war with the US and is thus removing North Korean workers from the country as a way of strengthening its negotiating hand with the Americans in advance of a US-China summit, which could determine the direction the trade war takes.
As the US continues to pressure North Korea to denuclearize, China appears to be adding to that pressure while pursuing its own national interests.
Moreover, the UN has made it impossible for North Korean workers overseas to renew their visas and prevented new workers from going abroad through Resolutions 2371 and 2375 in 2017. This has given China a pretext to follow the UN sanctions on North Korea to the letter.
The sudden restrictions on North Korean sojourn periods in China have led to stunned reactions among North Korean workers in China.
“North Koreans who received visas have had to pay a lot in bribes to get them, but now they have to return home. They can’t earn much in just a week’s time,” a North Korean workers in China told Daily NK.
“Everyone’s really angry and frustrated. We couldn’t foresee China doing something like this to us.”
“All the restaurant and trade company workers in Dandong were worried after the failure of the second US-DPRK summit,” he added. “The Chinese authorities seem to be sending us all back to North Korea to improve their relations with the US because of the US-China trade war.”
The UN passed Resolution 2397 in 2017. The resolution demands that all North Korean workers abroad return home by the end of 2019.
Meanwhile, North Korean workers in China are in a state of considerable unrest as news of the Chinese restrictions on sojourn periods has spread.
“I had hoped that we wouldn’t be sent back if the US-DPRK summit was successful, but I’ve totally abandoned all hope after hearing about what’s happened in Dandong,” a North Korean official managing North Korean workers in China’s Jilin Province said.
“Workers who have heard about it are already packing to return home and are even buying things in Chinese markets.”