Hundreds of North Korean workers have been dispatched to Russia after staying at two inns in Dandong City, Liaoning Province (China). They are known to have stayed in the city for approximately a week before traveling to Russia. Soon after they were dispatched, another group of workers arrived to occupy their rooms at the inns.
It is unusual for North Korean workers dispatched to Russia to travel via China rather than directly via the shared border areas near Vladivostok. North Korea routinely dispatches its workers directly from Rason to Hassan-Vladivostok-Ussuriysk (or Khabarovsk).
The route via Dandong (China) was once previously used to dispatch workers to inland Russia as it is cheaper than using international trains from Dandong to Russia. However, this route was reported to have been suddenly shut down by the North Korean authorities around 10 years ago.
“Recently, about 200 male North Korean workers from Pyongyang and South Pyongan Province arrived at two inns in Dandong, China, replacing a similar number who previously stayed there and have since left to Russia. It is unusual for North Korean workers dispatched to Russia to travel through Dandong,” stated Kim Dong Nam, head of the International Network for a Free North Korea.
“According to other guests at the inn, the workers have said that they will leave for Russia soon. On March 9, hundreds of North Korean workers stayed at the inns for about a week before leaving, and another 200 laborers arrived on March 16.”
“The inn is a five-story building, and is full of North Korean workers. If this trend continues, there could be thousands of workers being dispatched to Russia,” Kim added.
According to Kim, the North Korean workers are taking trains from Dandong to inland Russia via Harbin (Heilongjiang Province). It can be surmised that the North Korean authorities have reopened the route via China in order to dispatch a larger workforce at a lower cost.
A North Korean defector who was previously dispatched to Russia and fled to South Korea in 2015 said, “The travel route to Russia via China by train existed ten years ago, but the authorities shut it down all of a sudden. It seems they’ve introduced a new travel route or reopened the old one.”
The defector presumes that the workers in Dandong are being sent to Russia’s inland areas closer to Europe, such as Moscow or Tyumen, rather than the border areas of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.
“It took me more than five days to travel from Pyongyang to the Tumen River, and another week passed before I crossed the river to Moscow. If you don’t use the route via China, it takes about 15 days to travel from North Korea to inland Russia. But there was an express train from Pyongyang to Russia via Dandong at the time, so some of us used this line if there was too much luggage or too many people. This route not only cuts the travel time significantly, it’s also cheaper because you can go to Russia on one train ride,” the defector said.
A source close to North Korean affairs in China said that Russia is likely to welcome the plan by the North Korean authorities to dispatch a large labor force for foreign currency earning, noting, “The international community is keeping a watchful eye on North Korea’s dispatch of workers abroad in order to block the nation’s sources of foreign currency. But as long as Russia is in need of a cheap labor force, the regime can keep dispatching workers. The fact that they have resumed the old route [via Dandong] ten years after it was shut down shows the magnitude of the operation.”
A recent report by Radio Free Asia (RFA) lends further weight to these claims. RFA reported that according to statements made by the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang on March 20, Russia and China discussed the issue of dispatching workers during a joint working group meeting held on March 17 in Pyongyang. “These movements,” the report read, “can be interpreted as part of a policy to increase the number of dispatched workers, despite negative sentiment from the international community.”