With the novel coronavirus outbreak seemingly under control, Chinese factories and businesses are gradually returning to normal operations. North Korean laborers in China, however, are not heading back to work. 

“Many Chinese factories have opened again, but North Korean workers in Liaoning and Jilin Province aren’t able to go to work yet,” a China-based source told Daily NK on Wednesday. “They’re still under quarantine.”

North Korean authorities are reportedly refusing to let workers go back to work over worries about whether they will be able to receive proper treatment if they become infected with COVID-19. 


Most of the North Korean laborers currently in China entered the country with technical learning permits or as industrial training exchange students, not work visas. This means that they would be unable to get proper treatment if they become infected with COVID-19.

Should the workers receive treatment in China, they would most likely have to pay for it out-of-pocket. While North Korean trade companies that manage workers in China are technically responsible for medical expenses, workers would most likely have to foot the bill, Daily NK sources said. 

In the past, North Korean workers have reportedly returned to North Korea for medical treatment instead of getting treated in China. 

One source in China told Daily NK about a North Korean laborer who was hurt in an industrial accident at a Chinese factory last year. The Chinese factory manager refused to pay for the man’s medical expenses because the laborer was not “officially employed.”

The man was forced to return to North Korea for medical treatment, the source said. 

Now, however, North Korea has shut down trade and movement across the Sino-North Korean border. If, for example, a North Korean laborer in China becomes infected with COVID-19, they would have no way of returning to North Korea. 

“North Korean laborers wouldn’t be able to get treatment nor return to North Korea,” the China-based source told Daily NK. “North Korean officials want to delay their return to the workforce until the coronavirus situation improves some more.” 


Chinese factories and companies, however, have reportedly begun to express discontent over the delay. 

“The Chinese factories or restaurant owners are asking for just a few workers to help with cleaning activities,” another China-based source said. “The officials responsible for managing the workers have asked the Chinese managers to wait, saying that none of the North Korean workers can work until the North Korean state has issued an order allowing them to do so.”

North Korean workers currently quarantined within their factory dormitories are impatiently awaiting the order to return to work. They have been unable to earn an income for the past two months, and their stipends for food are so meager that they were reportedly unable to properly feed themselves.

“Restaurants have been giving each worker RMB 10 [USD 1.41] for food per day, but it is difficult to eat three meals a day with that amount of money,” the source said. 

The workers are still expected to contribute to the regime’s “loyalty fund.” Some North Korean officials have secretly found job opportunities for the workers to allow them to earn some money. 

“Some workers borrowed anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars to work in China,” a North Korean involved in the restaurant industry in China told Daily NK. “They went into debt to work in China, and now they’re anxious that they won’t be able to pay off those debts.”

“They are in debt and will be punished if they don’t pay their fees to the government. That’s why they’re looking for all this work under the table,” continued the source. “It’s unreasonable that the authorities will forbid them from working yet expect the fees to be paid.”

Daily NK was unable to confirm when North Korean authorities will begin allowing workers in China to return to work. 

Sources told Daily NK that the officials managing North Korean workers in China have not been given any directions to how long the workers should remain in quarantine.

*Translated by Violet Kim

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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