Managers skimming wages of North Korean workers in China

North Korean workers travel on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge from Sinuiju to Dandong
North Korean workers travel on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge from Sinuiju to Dandong. Image: Daily NK

As the deadline for their return home looms, North Korean workers in China are increasingly being exploited by their North Korean managers. These worker “overseers” are cutting workers’ monthly salaries under the pretext of paying for “operational costs” and contributing to the regime’s loyalty fund, with some managers also taking parts of workers’ salaries for themselves.

“North Korean workers in China are suffering from all sorts of exploitation,” said a Daily NK source based in China on June 8. “Whenever they hold meetings with their managers they tell them to ‘give them [workers] their full salaries.’”

“There are some overseers who provide workers with the proper salaries, but there are many more who just exploit them,” the source added. “Workers are angry that the managers, who literally earn a living off their backs, could do this to them.”

Reports suggest that the exploitation of North Korean workers in China has worsened since the passing of Resolution 2397 by the UN Security Council in December 2017. The resolution requires all North Korean workers abroad to return to North Korea by December this year. Due to the impending deadline, many workers are being exposed to deepening levels of exploitation by their managers.

North Korean workers returning to North Korea via the customs office in Dandong in March 2019
North Korean workers returning to North Korea via the customs office in Dandong in March 2019. Image: Daily NK

North Korean restaurant workers in China typically receive 3,000 Chinese yuan per month, while factory workers receive 1,500 to 2,000 yuan per month. However, almost half of their salaries are taken by their managers so they are left with only 600 to 1,000 yuan per month.

“Recently, the authorities have asked for more contributions to the loyalty fund to support major construction projects, including the Danchon Power Plant (South Hamgyong Province), the Samjiyon modernization project (Ryanggang Province), and the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Zone Area (Kangwon Province),” a source in China close to North Korean affairs told Daily NK.

“Workers should normally get around 500 yuan a month, but really exploitative managers only give their workers 100 yuan a month.”

She added that managers demand that their workers contribute a part of their salaries each month for superfluous reasons, such as the “party wants you to” or to “show the party your loyalty.”

“There are a lot of managers who just take what they want from workers’ salaries for themselves,” she said.

Workers in China are frequently detained by their managers to limit their exposure to the outside world and out of fear that they may run off. High-level officials in the North Korean government expect managers to faithfully contribute money to the loyalty fund.

“Workers in China try to save 10 yuan by not taking taxis, even though it’s a common way to get around,” said the source. “They’ll probably all burst into tears once they realize how bad they’ve being treated.”

Nonetheless, many North Koreans still want to go to China to earn money.

“Most factories in North Korea aren’t operating anymore, so young people want to work in China. They have to face the trouble of returning home every month because the Chinese authorities aren’t issuing visas anymore. The work is also quite difficult there. That being said, they feel that working in China is much better [than working in North Korea],” a separate source in China reported.

“North Korean workers in China send clothes to family members back home and believe that they must stay there to support their families.”

Jang Seul Gi is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to