North Korean laborers abroad under increased scrutiny

Taken in May 2017, groups of North Korean laborers in Tumen seen out and about shopping in the city. Image: Daily NK

Surveillance over North Korean laborers dispatched abroad has increased in recent weeks.

“At a factory [name redacted for safety of source] in Tumen, China, North Korean laborers are completely confined to the facilities. Just a year ago you could see the laborers head out in groups to the markets in the city center to buy goods, but you don’t see that anymore,” said a source in Tumen City close to North Korean affairs.

The situation is similar in Hunchun City, according to an informed source in that city who told Daily NK, “I used to see North Korean workers out and about in groups laughing, getting something to eat, and shopping together but now they’re nowhere to be found–to the extent that Chinese residents living near factories employing North Korean labor assumed they’d gone back to the North.”

Both sources surmised that the increased restrictions are due to efforts by the North Korean regime to strengthen ideological education and thwart its erosion as laborers come into contact with the outside world. The increasingly oppressive atmosphere has been building since the controversial group defection of 13 North Korean workers from a restaurant in China in April 2016.

Meanwhile, a separate source in Tumen noted the removal of road signs pointing to the North Korean industrial complex in the area.

“The signs that once dotted the surrounding area, with blue backgrounds and white text referring to the North Korean industrial section, are gone,” he said, postulating that the development was an attempt to draw attention away from the area in the wake of international sanctions targeting the use of North Korean laborers abroad.

Taken in May 2017, signs once indicated the location of the North Korean industrial complex in Tumen City, Jilin, China. Image: Daily NK

UNSC Resolution 2371, which passed in August 2017 in response to a North Korean ICBM test, banned the North from sending any more laborers abroad. After North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, the UNSC passed Resolution 2375 in September preventing any contract renewals for laborers already working abroad.  

Following the North’s test of its “Hwasong-15” ICBM in December, the UNSC passed Resolution 2397 requiring that all North Korean laborers abroad return to their home country within 24 months. Under these measures, countries hosting North Korean laborers have until 2019 to send all North Korean workers back home.