North Korean workers avoiding international sanctions while working in China

North Korean women workers at the customs office in Dandong
North Korean women workers at the customs office in Dandong. image: Daily NK

Only six months remain before workers from North Korea must return home in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2397. Most North Koreans working in the northeast region of China are now under more intense surveillance as the international community watches to see whether China will abide by the UN resolution.

Daily NK sources based in China told Daily NK that teams of North Korean workers in China had previously been permitted to leave their factories to shop at nearby markets. Now, however, they are being confined to their factories and dormitories.

“A chain-link fence surrounds a development zone located about a 15-minute car ride from Hunchun. North Korean workers can’t leave the zone until they decide to return home to North Korea.”

The source also noted that Chinese factory managers and Chinese police prevent North Korean workers from walking around outside the zone.

The Chinese authorities appear to be strongly cracking down on the movement of North Korean workers given that any reports by foreign media could lead to controversy.

“The mass defection of 13 female restaurant workers back in 2016 led to the introduction of restrictions on North Korean workers by the Chinese authorities. These restrictions have now gotten even worse,” said the source.

Chinese business owners who employ North Korean workers are trying to find ways to manage the mass exit of their North Korean employees in December. Some business owners are either shutting down their activities or finding alternate sources of labor, while others are trying to find ways to keep the North Koreans in their employ.

“I know that the representative for North Korean workers in Tumen and Hunchun and local municipal officials in China are trying to keep the North Korean workers in the country,” a separate source in China close to North Korean affairs told Daily NK.

“Hunchun tends to find ways to accommodate North Korean workers in the area. It makes sense because there are 6,500 workers in Hunchun alone. The business owners can’t hand out new visas to North Korean workers so North Koreans entering China nowadays don’t have visas. Hunchun city officials just turn a blind eye to this.”

North Koreans without visas are permitted to stay in China for one month. After working in China for a month, they return to North Korea before typically returning to China for another sojourn. This process is repeated to circumvent the restrictions on “work visas” defined by international sanctions.

“A factory in China may have hundreds of North Korean workers. All of them will head back to North Korea at the same time to renew their status. It will be a very interesting sight to see,” the source continued.

He added that workers who have never been to China are entering the country. “They hail from all over North Korea, even Pyongyang, and enter China without a visa and just stay there for as long as necessary,” he said.

“It’s tough, but it’s a way to earn money.”