The North Korean authorities are reportedly planning to increase the number of workers dispatched to China in 2017, despite the occurrence of numerous defections by dispatched workers last year.
The decision appears based on the labor cost in China and the regime’s desire to earn foreign currency. The chronic shortage of funds is likely to be a more important issue than the accusations of human rights violations leveled by the international community and the South Korean government.
“The number of North Korean workers in China has continuously increased. From what I heard, there are 4500 North Korean workers in Hunchun, Jilin Province, and 100 workers in Kaishandun. Many are also being dispatched to Shandon Province and inland regions as well as the three northeastern provinces (Liaoning, Jilin, Heilongjiang) in the border region,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on January 31.
“The increase came after official contact between the North Korean authorities and Chinese enterprises. It can be surmised that the regime is more interested in earning money than preventing further defections.”
One of the main causes for the continuing influx of North Korean workers into China is thought to be the economic benefit that it brings both nations. From China’s point of view, hiring North Koreans reduces labor costs, while it represents a lucrative source of revenue for the North Korean regime.
China was an attractive location for foreign investment due to its cheap labor costs up until the mid-2000s, but following the global economic crisis in 2008, the business environment in China deteriorated and the country no longer fits the description of a ‘low-wage production location.’
The rise in labor costs in China has also affected businesses in the border regions. Hunchun City is attempting to reduce production costs by processing fish imported from South Korea, Russia, Japan and Brazil in North Korea to capitalize on the country’s cheap labor and then bring the products back for export.
“In 2007, the cost to hire a Chinese nanny was about 200,000 KRW, but now it’s about 340,000 to 510,000 KRW. The Chinese naturally favor North Korean workers, as their cost of labor is only about 170,000 KRW. The North Korean authorities see it as a profitable agreement because they take most of the workers’ wages,” a separate source in China said.
“The average wage of North Korean workers is about 340,000 KRW but they have to contribute 200,000 to 250,000 KRW to the authorities. But the workers still want to be dispatched to China because even this amount is much larger than what they can earn in North Korea.”
However, the authorities are strengthening control measures for the dispatched workers. Although instructions have been issued to ‘dispatch as many workers as possible even if some escape,’ the regime remains sensitive to public sentiment following the series of defections that occurred last year.
“In China, it is common practice to build a large industrial complex with a fence in which 1000 to 2000 people can be accommodated. The North Korean authorities prefer to send workers to these places because it is easier to control them and prohibit contact with the outside world,” a source in North Hamgyong Province explained.
“The regime keeps trying to prevent the dispatched workers from receiving information or contacting the outside world, creating a similar environment to a ‘labor camp’ so as to protect its workers from the so-called ‘capitalist yellow wind.'”