North Korean authorities recently ordered workplaces employing North Koreans workers or traders in China to report lists of employees who missed work due to sickness or who have abandoned their places of employment.

North Korea appears to have begun preparations to repatriate some of its citizens in China, something it has been unable to properly do since closing the North Korea-China border last year due to COVID-19.

In a telephone conversation with Daily NK last Thursday, a source in China said an order had come from North Korea to “write-up and submit a list of workers who cannot work due to sickness or injury.”

The authorities reportedly handed down the order to all factories, restaurants, and trading companies employing North Korean workers through North Korea’s consulates in China on around July 20.

According to the source, North Korean authorities ordered that the lists include cadres stranded in China after entering the country on short business trips, business people unable to produce results in China due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and workers detained after attempting to defect.

When North Korean workers in China are caught trying to defect, they are confined or watched over by North Korean Ministry of State Security agents in China. Most of them work in restaurants or small factories.

Working largely in industrial parks in Liaoning or Jilin provinces, most North Korean workers restrict their lives to their factories and dormitories. This typically means that defecting never crosses their mind.

The North Korean embassy in China reportedly gathered the lists by July 24 and reported them to Pyongyang. In its report, the embassy separated those who could not work due to sickness or workplace injuries from those confined in their quarters due to illegal activity, such as defection attempts or contact with South Koreans.

In this file photo, North Korean women are seen on a bus heading over the Sino-North Korean Friendship Bridge into China. The women appear to be heading to work in Dandong from their homes in Sinuiju. / Image: Daily NK

With North Korean authorities suddenly ordering repatriation lists, North Korean business people in China are speculating that a personnel rotation is imminent.

Cadres responsible for managing the workers and business people in China are reportedly wondering whether it is a sign that those on the list will be sent to North Korea and replaced with new workers.

A Daily NK investigation has revealed that, until the end of last year, North Korean authorities were unable to dispatch new workers overseas following the closure of the China-North Korea border in January 2020. From the start of this year, however, they are sending new workers to Russia, Mongolia, and elsewhere.

But in the case of China, the authorities have been unable to send new workers despite completing their selection and training.

This is because there are a limited number of places North Koreans can work in China, so dispatches and repatriations must take place simultaneously. 

Generally speaking, North Korea appears to just be sending workers overseas without bothering to repatriate those already abroad because of COVID-19 fears. 

Some North Koreans are taking a “wait-and-see” approach because while there have been “similar orders in the past to create lists following the [North Korea-China] border closure, no workforce rotation has [ever] occurred.” 

Russia’s Interfax news agency reported Tuesday that around 1,000 North Koreans are stranded in the Russian Far East because of severed transportation links between North Korea and Russia due to COVID-19. The news agency further said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered that the North Koreans be allowed to stay indefinitely.

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