North Korean authorities plan to send workers to Mongolia this month, Daily NK has learned. This comes after the country’s leadership sent new batches of workers to Russia in March.

These moves suggest that North Korea is expanding its efforts to raise funds following a shortage of foreign currency due to difficulties caused by COVID-19 and continuing international sanctions on the country.

On May 2, a Daily NK source reported that around 200 workers are set to head to Mongolia in early May. The group of workers is made up of 60% males and 40 females: the men will work on agricultural and livestock farms while the women will work in textile factories.

Recruitment for these workers started late last month and the authorities have completed the third-round of screening of the candidates. The fourth-round of screening, which involves preparing necessary documentation for leaving the country, is now in progress.

It typically takes from four to six months for North Korean authorities to fully screen all workers heading to overseas locations such as China or Russia. During the first-round of screening, recruiters examine recommendations from municipal and county-level party organizations along with the results of basic health exams conducted at local hospitals.

Those candidates who pass the first-round of screening in a given province then take part in the second-round of screening, which is administered by the provincial party organization. During this stage, each candidate is interviewed one-on-one and recruiters examine the results of more extensive health exams conducted at provincial-level hospitals. These health exams focus on uncovering evidence of various transmittable diseases such as pneumonia, hepatitis, and tuberculosis.

That being said, candidates who suffer from “less than serious” cases of any of these transmittable diseases can still pass muster if they bribe hospital officials or even recruiters.

The third-round of screening is administered by central government agencies involved in sending workers abroad, such as the Central Committee, Cabinet or military. The workers sent to Russia in March, for example, were recruited by the External Construction Guidance Bureau, which means that the agency conducted interviews in Pyongyang and ultimately selected the final candidates. The screening of candidates for this latest Mongolia dispatch was conducted by the Ministry of Fisheries and the Capital Construction Guidance Bureau.

During the third-round of screening, candidates also undergo a third health exam at Pyongyang’s No. 2 People’s Hospital. During this health exam, candidates are again tested for transmittable diseases, including AIDS. According to the source, candidates can pass all these tests with bribes, but “no matter how much bribe money you throw at it, no one can bribe their way out” of a positive AIDS test.

A large number of laborers are working in this building, under construction in Ussuriysk, Russia. Image = Daily NK source
This undated photo shows a building in Ussuriysk, Russia, where a large number of North Korean workers were employed in construction work. / Image: Daily NK

The fourth-round of screening, meanwhile, is administered by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In reality, final candidates are already chosen by the third-round of screening, which means that the ministry just conducts basic interviews with four candidates at a time before providing them with passports, visas, and other documentation.

This four-phase recruitment system is part of the government’s efforts to fully screen anyone they send out of the country. Many North Koreans, however, say that this four-stage system is aimed at providing recruitment agencies and cadres with opportunities to glean bribes off of candidates. Forcing candidates to undergo three overlapping health exams, for example, provides ample opportunity for cadres to milk bribes out of candidates who fail certain health tests.

Recently, if a candidate is found to have a transmittable disease, they may have to pay up to a USD 1,000 bribe. This amount contrasts sharply with the USD 500 sum they had to pay in 2019.

In the past, moreover, North Korean workers sent to Russia took trains or buses, but on account of an order from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier this year, they now have to take a Russia-bound flight from Beijing.

Workers who were sent to Vladivostok in March, for example, took a very roundabout way to get to their destination. They departed for Dandong from Pyongyang before heading to Beijing to catch Moscow-bound flights. From Moscow, they then had to make their way to Vladivostok.

North Korean authorities have tried to explain away the use of flights for these workers as “consideration shown by Chairman Kim” for their safety; however, the workers appear to be flying out from China because international train services have not yet restarted. Because the workers have to pay for their own flights, costs related to travel have reportedly risen by a factor of 10.

On average, overseas workers are USD 3,000 in debt due to bribes made during the recruitment process or because of costly travel fees. While they all plan to repay this debt with the money earned abroad, this is not an easy proposition given that they face excessive demands to contribute to “party funds” once they are dispatched to foreign countries.

“While the reality turns out differently, people want to leave the country despite the risk of debt because of their hope that they can earn lots of money when they go abroad,” the source said. “Without saving anything up, some are able to just barely pay back their debts when they return.”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.