North Korean laborers are continuing to earn foreign currency in places such as China and Russia, despite sanctions placed on North Korea by the UN Security Council (Resolution 2397, which calls for the return of all North Korean laborers dispatched overseas by December 2019).

North Korean authorities are not recalling their workers, citing COVID-19 as an excuse, and recently, they have increased the amount of work laborers are doing as part of efforts to increase the funds the workers “donate” to the state.

According to a Daily NK source in China on Thursday, North Korean authorities have never ordered North Korean workers in China to return home this year. The workers were also forced to remain isolated in their residences in February and March, when factories and restaurants in China were closed due to COVID-19.

North Korean laborers are currently working in clothing, electronics and seafood processing factories, as well as in North Korean restaurants, in Dandong, Liaoning Province, and in Jilin Province.

The exact number of North Korean laborers dispatched to China is unknown, but Daily NK believes that there are around 25,000 to 30,000 workers in Jilin Province alone.

North Korean laborers in Dandong waiting en route back to North Korea
North Korean laborers at China’s Dandong Station waiting en route back to North Korea. / Image: Daily NK

According to diplomatic source in China, North Korean authorities recently handed down an order to laborers dispatched to China. The order called for the workers to comply with quarantine guidelines even while overseas; for expatriate workers to take active part in the “movement to earn foreign currency” to “show concern for the difficult circumstances the country faces”; and, for workers in China to contribute their personal funds to the nation and people’s economy during the so-called “80-day battle.”

That is to say, the government is demanding that laborers donate their personal salaries to the Workers’ Party as a show of loyalty.

Government cadres managing the laborers overseas are, in accordance with the order, raising the intensity of the work the workers are engaged in. 

There are reportedly cases in which female workers at restaurants work in the eateries in the day and in karaoke clubs at night, while factory workers perform different duties during day and night shifts.

“There are even cases of laborers working while sleeping only three hours a day,” said the source. “Not only do they have no time to rest, but during their breaks they attend evaluation meetings. They are all suffering.”

Daily NK reported previously (in Korean) that North Korean workers at a clothing factory in Dandong were recently subject to high-intensity labor. 

North Korean workers at a textile factory in Jilin, China in 2017
North Korean workers at a textile factory in Jilin Province, China, in 2017. / Image: Daily NK

Emphasizing the donation of “loyalty funds” with the 80-day battle as a pretext, a laborer management official (cadre) in Liaoning province reportedly sent RMB 2,000 of the laborers’ RMB 2,300 monthly salary to the Workers’ Party without the workers’ permission. All that was left of the workers’ salary was enough to buy meals. There are 200 North Korean laborers at the factory, so RMB 400,000 (about USD 61,000) a month was “donated” to the party.

Because the authorities have ordered workers to offer their personal salaries to the party as a sign of loyalty, laborers who have been extorted out of their wages have no way to complain about the injustice.

Even so, the quality of the meals provided to the workers has reportedly improved somewhat compared to the past.  

“The side dishes and snacks are better than they were when the factories closed and the workers were isolated in their residences,” said the source. “Sometimes there’s even fruit, but compared to the work, it’s hard to say that the meals are enough.”

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

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Mun Dong Hui is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about his articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.