North Korean authorities keep laborers abroad to beat sanctions

The regime is extending the duration of dispatch for North Korea’s overseas laborers in a bid to generate more income while under international sanctions. An executive order has been issued to identify new ways to gain more from the labor force abroad. This is likely an attempt by the Kim regime to alleviate the impact of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2371, which bans countries from importing additional North Korean workers.
Under normal circumstances, laborers dispatched by the authorities spend between 3-5 years in a foreign country to earn money for the regime, but the new order has removed this timeline.
“Some clothing factory workers had been waiting for orders to return to North Korea, but now there are new orders for them to remain abroad,” said an inside source from China during a telephone call with Daily NK.
“The instructions are to quickly find new work for the laborers currently in China, and not to wait for official permission,” the source continued. This means that if there are no official contracts available, the laborers are to be sent to work in unofficial positions.
When asked about specifics, the source added, “In Liaoning Province, Dandong City, groups of laborers will be taken around to hotels and restaurants and sent to work for a few days at a time. There is some danger that the workers will try to defect, but as long as the order stands, the authorities will continue to place workers in this way.” Under typical circumstances, North Korean workers are subject to near-constant surveillance and strict controls.
The newest sanctions passed by the United Nations Security Council introduced the first mandatory limits on North Korean workers abroad, stating, “All Member States shall not exceed on any date after the date of adoption of this resolution the total number of work authorizations for DPRK nationals provided in their jurisdictions at the time of the adoption of this resolution.” The regime’s new order to keep workers at their current posts instead of having them return home may be interpreted as an attempt to compensate for these measures.
After the introduction of the new resolution, the North Korean authorities have noted that collaborations with Chinese corporations have started to decline.
Another source from China with knowledge of the developments said, “North Korean labor is cheap, so there is an advantage for Chinese companies to use it, but the sudden pullout of workers is a reflection of international measures and orders from the North Korean authorities. This could result in significant damage to businesses, which is why Chinese firms do not intend to hire many North Korean workers.”
In reality, North Korean workers are still being employed by businesses collaborating with North Korean agencies in China’s Dandong, Jilin, and Yanji cities. However, the general atmosphere has become more tense and attitudes are changing, note local sources.
Some Chinese firms are already feeling the sting of continuing to deal with North Korea.
“The two sides have established agreements. But thanks to new international sanctions, some products produced in collaboration with North Korea have already been sent back to the North,” the second source said, adding that in the aftermath of these developments, North Korean state trading companies that are in China earning currency for the regime have been affected significantly.      
“We’re undergoing hardships at the moment, but things are harder for the Joson (North Korean) side. As the days go by, the economic blockade gets stronger, and money feeding back into the North from overseas is decreasing. And since exports are also being blocked, we might expect funding sources to dry up on both sides.”
Kang Mi Jin is a North Korean defector turned journalist who fled North Korea in 2009. She has a degree in economics and writes largely on marketization and economy-related issues for Daily NK. Questions about her articles can be directed to