North Korean officials overseeing workers in Chinese factories and North Korean restaurants in China are intensifying their surveillance of the workers to prevent a mass defection, Daily NK has learned.
“Chinese factories and North Korean restaurants have been closed since Feb. 24 because of the coronavirus,” a China-based source told Daily NK on Sunday. “It’s impossible to know when these workers will be able to get back to work.”
Many Chinese factories have been unable to operate normally after the Chinese New Year holiday due to the spread of COVID-19.
“The workers are grumbling, because they’ve been shut inside for a month without work,” the source continued. “They want to go out, and their managers are anxiously trying to keep them under control.”
FEARING A REPEAT OF 2016
With an increasing number of workers voicing their frustration over being confined to their dormitories, North Korean authorities have intensified surveillance in fears of a mass defection of North Korean workers – something that occurred in 2016.
“The authorities are concerned because they’re afraid that the workers will make an escape to South Korea, like they did a few years ago,” one source explained. “There was a recent order issued to local managers [in China] to be particularly vigilant in their surveillance of the workers.”
In 2016, 13 workers at the Ryugyong Restaurant in Zhejiang Province defected to South Korea.
Factory workers face considerable obstacles in trying to leave their high-walled factory complexes, which houses both their dormitories and the factories themselves.
Workers at restaurants, however, can leave their residences with relative ease.
“[Before the coronavirus outbreak] restaurant workers would commute daily to work, buy themselves snacks, and walk around, but now they’re trapped inside their dormitories and are having a hard time,” one source said. “Because there are about 10-20 workers living together in a cramped space, they’re all very much on edge.”
STRESSING OVER “LOYALTY FEES”
The officials in charge of the North Korean workers dispatched to China are also reportedly fretting over the collection of wages and fees. Due to COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdown of factories and restaurants in China, workers in the country have not been able to receive their wages.
Regardless of the lack of wages, the officials in charge of collecting these wages taking out “loyalty fees” from them to send to the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) must continue to send the fees.
“The North Korean authorities are demanding that the fees be paid regardless of whether the workers can work or not, so both the workers and their managers need to come up with a way to produce this money somehow,” one source said.
The loyalty fees that overseas North Korean workers must pay is reportedly about RMB 1,000 (approximately USD 143) a month, Daily NK sources said.
Daily NK previously reported that although overseas North Korean workers at Chinese factories earn an average wage of RMB 2,000–3,000 a month, they must hand over about 50% of their wages to the WPK.
“Because of these difficulties, several of the managers have said that it is better to run away than to be punished for being unable to pay the Party,” said a source. This kind of discussion speaks to the immense pressure put on North Koreans to pay the loyalty fees.
Several of these managers have reportedly asked other Chinese companies for work, in an attempt to secure the funds for the loyalty fees. But because COVID-19 has closed down most of the factories in China, this is not a viable option either, sources explained.
It is difficult to predict when these factories will return to normal operations given the continued spread of the coronavirus. Daily NK sources did, speculate, however, that factories with many North Korean workers in Liaoning Province and Jilin Province factories might return to normal operations in early March.
“There are some say that the factories might even begin to operate normally at the beginning of this month,” one source said. “The longer this hiatus goes on, the harder it will be for the workers and the Chinese companies to survive. The workers in particular say that they’re more afraid of not earning money than of getting infected with the virus, and are hoping that the factories return to normal operations soon.”
*Translated by Violet Kim
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