The hills of Mongolia (Bernd Thaller, Flickr, Creative Commons)

A week ago, I went on a trip to Mongolia. The country was more vibrant than ever, as if the pandemic was already well in the past. The impetus for this particular trip was Dr. Yeosang Yoon and his team’s research on the lives and human rights situation of overseas North Korean workers, which was published by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) back in 2016. Between sanctions against North Korea and the pandemic, I naturally wanted to get out in the field and investigate how the North Korean workers dispatched to Mongolia were faring. Ultimately, I found that due to sanctions there were no North Korean workers officially staying in Mongolia.

North Korean labor in Mongolia can be broadly divided into three types. First, there are those working and running North Korean restaurants, much like the kinds operated in China, Russia, and parts of Southeast Asia. Second, there are workers dispatched to construction projects in urban areas, such as Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. Third, there are the workers dispatched to factories manufacturing cashmere, one of Mongolia’s key industries.

As for North Korean restaurants in Mongolia, there used to be three thriving restaurants operating in central Ulaanbaatar under the names “Pyongyang Baekhwagwan,” “Pyongyang Restaurant,” and “Pyongyang Koryo Folk Restaurant.” I verified that none of these three restaurants were operating. At “Pyongyang Baekhwagwan,” the restaurant sign had an “under construction” notice still up, and new shops had moved into the locations of the other two restaurants. According to a source in Mongolia, the North Korean embassy in Mongolia owned “Pyongyang Baekhwagwan,” which meant that it was not completely shut down; rather, it had temporarily suspended operations. The source also told me that the restaurant’s sign remained up and embassy officials regularly came by to inspect the shops.

Meanwhile, construction workers have become scarce in Mongolia, at least officially. In Russia, crowded flights and trains prevented some workers from returning to North Korea following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even now, some workers are tacitly employed on house remodeling projects and other small-scale construction projects. However, North Korea had already officially pulled workers out of the country before the UN-mandated deadline of December 22, 2019. Since then, COVID-19 has made it difficult for North Korea to send large numbers of workers to the country. 

A photo of the Pyongyang Baekhwagwan restaurant. The photo on the left shows a note saying the restaurant is closed for construction work. (Kang Dong Wan)

North Korea’s largely female workforce in Mongolia’s cashmere factories has also disappeared. During my trip, I paid a visit to a cashmere factory that had once employed about eight hundred North Korean workers. Factory officials there told me that they no longer employ North Korean laborers. I found that the situation at local hospitals was much the same. North Korean doctors, who had primarily practiced traditional Korean medicine such as acupuncture and physical therapy, had all left the country. On the signboard advertising the hospital, only the North Korean and Mongolian flags hanging side-by-side remained and there were no North Korean doctors to be found. Was that why nothing but a sense of desolation seemed to hang over the North Korean embassy in the heart of downtown Ulaanbaatar?

Some people are calling for sanctions on North Korea to be lifted. However, we need to look back on why North Korea was slapped with sanctions in the first place. The sanctions began with North Korea’s nuclear tests and long-range missile launches. We shouldn’t view the issue as one where an innocent North Korea is suffering because of sanctions. Rather than look at our government or international society as imposing unjust pressure or sanctions, we would be better served by urging North Korean authorities to quickly suspend nuclear development and set out on the path towards economic reforms and opening. 

Finally, I took a walk through Mongolia’s desert. I had heard testimony from a defector who had spent weeks crossing the desert without so much as a drop of water and knew I had to try walking in their shoes. After only a few steps, I had sunk up to my ankles in a sand trap; it was so hard to breathe I felt like I would die! I had imagined something romantic, looking up at the Milky Way and casting my body away into the starlight, but this was no such place. In short, the desert made me feel like I was standing at the crossroads between life and death.

I felt utterly ashamed and contrite in the face of those defectors. I had come to understand just a fraction of what it must have been like to walk and walk for days across the desert chasing their hope for freedom. In the desert, where a single step can decide life or death, just how many defectors have disappeared into the darkness? Even now, the procession of defectors continues. The Kim Jong Un regime has doggedly pursued nuclear weapons with no end in sight to the barrage of tests. What we need right now is not unconditional dialogue. As for our deference towards Kim Jong Un and efforts to curry favor with the regime, the last five years have been sufficient. You can’t speak of peace with nuclear weapons balanced on your head. Standing in the middle of Mongolia’s desert, I was hit by this simple truth: we must make improving North Korean human rights our foremost priority and work to expand liberal democratic values in the country. With this renewed conviction, I returned home.

Translated by Rose Adams

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to

Read in Korean