With just eight months remaining until the deadline for North Korean laborers to return to their country arrives as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution No. 2397, local sources report an influx of North Korean workers to China.
“A large number of North Korean workers are entering China through Dandong in Liaoning Province,” a Daily NK source based in China told Daily NK. “The visas of these ‘new’ laborers had expired so they just went back to North Korea to extend them, although some of those coming in are new visa holders.”
The new visa holders, however, have reportedly not received visas appropriate for working in China. “The sanctions have ensured that laborers can’t receive new work visas,” he said, “so they’re entering on short-term technical training visas or student visas instead.”
The mass return of North Korean laborers in late March suggests that UN sanctions on the country have had an impact. Most of those laborers, however, returned home just to spend April 15 (Kim Il Sung’s birthday) with their families before returning to China.
“It was easy to mistake their return to North Korea for a permanent return to the country,” a separate source in China close to North Korean affairs reported.
“There’s rumors that laborers will be returned home from June. “If the sanctions aren’t lifted, then the workers will return home between June and December, according to the rumors […] If North Korean workers can’t get visas to work in China, there’s no Chinese workers to fill their positions […] factory officials are concerned about this.”
Chinese workers receive around 4,000 to 5,000 yuan, twice as much as North Korean workers who only receive 2,000 yuan.
“Chinese factories will have to shut down if the North Korean workers suddenly leave,” the source continued. “North Korean workers earn much less than Chinese workers, so factories would be faced with having to pay more wages. Chinese authorities will likely send North Korean workers back to their country as slowly as possible.”
The Chinese government is also faced with sensitive trade talks with the US along with the understanding that it will start sending North Korean workers back home.
Sino-North Korean trade figures in March increased by 38.1% compared to the same period last year and have recovered to levels last seen in the second half of 2018. According to IBK’s North Korean Economic Research Institute, North Korea’s exports to China increased 33.7% in March, to reach USD $16.56 million, while imports from China increased 38.5% to reach USD $197.95 million.
These numbers show an increase in trade between the two countries. This, along with the increase in North Korean workers in China, suggests that China may use the return of North Korean workers as a negotiating tool.
To date, there has been no official announcement by Chinese officials regarding North Korean workers in Dandong.
“I heard from a Chinese official that there hasn’t been any official word from Chinese officials about foreign laborers in Dandong as of late April” Lee Geun Young, a visiting scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Global Strategy Institute, told Daily NK.
“The Chinese government may choose just to not extend their visas, rather than forcibly remove them from the country […] North Korean workers would then face the issue of staying in China as illegal migrants.”
In regards to the return of all North Korean laborers by the deadline set by the UN, Lee said that “North Korean workers will not be working overseas on work visas. They will be using student or training visas.”