North Korea is in the midst of recruiting laborers to send abroad as part of full-fledged efforts to earn foreign currency, Daily NK has learned.

A high-level Daily NK source reported earlier today that the authorities are recruiting laborers in major North Korean cities such as Pyongyang to be sent to China, Russia, Qatar, Iran and other countries “friendly” to North Korea.

These laborers are being recruited by the country’s External Construction Bureau, and recruitment efforts are focused on men in their 30s and 40s who will be sent to construction projects abroad, the source said.

The source pointed out, however, that potential recruits may find it harder to be selected for overseas jobs than before. The criteria to be selected has reportedly been strengthened due to a recent incident (article in Korean) where 11 North Korean laborers working in Russia defected to South Korea.

It will likely take from two to four months for recruits to be selected for the overseas jobs, based on the source’s account.

Meanwhile, North Korean authorities are recruiting mainly women to replace laborers at clothes factories and manufacturing sites in China.

In normal times, laborers in China would return home after three years. However, because of the closure of the Sino-North Korean border last year due to COVID-19 pandemic, many laborers who should have returned could not do so and continued to work in China.

A large number of laborers are working in this building, under construction in Ussuriysk, Russia. Image = Daily NK source
A large number of laborers worked on this building in Ussuriysk, Russia. / Image: Daily NK source

However, most North Korean laborers in China do not want to return to North Korea, according to the source. The laborers feel this way because many of them failed to make much money last year as their factories closed or there was less work to do than normal.

A source in China told Daily NK that “there are many laborers who say that they would be returning home essentially empty-handed if they were to go back now.” He further noted that the laborers believe they can go back “only when they have earned enough money to at least start a business.”

Some laborers in China, however, want to return home as soon as possible because they believe that their continued stay in China will not allow them to earn much money.

Officials managing laborers in China are now confirming who wants to return and who wants to stay. Many laborers want to stay, and it may be possible for them to do so – even if they have logged more than three years abroad.

Laborers who desire to return but who have not yet reached the three-year limit may also be able to return to North Korea soon, the source said.

North Korean authorities likely want to finish their screening of new workers to be sent to China more quickly than of those to be sent to other areas of the world.

Laborers being sent to China only need a “border crossing pass” issued by the province where they live, while laborers heading to other places such as Qatar or Iran require passports and visas.

“Preparations for the replacement of laborers in China will take a month or two,” the source said, adding, “[North Korean laborers] in China don’t need to go through [various] procedures to return home, so once the new laborers are selected [in North Korea] the replacement process will move ahead quickly.”

*Translated by S & J

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