Regime squeezes North Korean workers in China for funds

North Korean workers at a restaurant in Dandong (taken in July 2018)
North Korean workers at a restaurant in Dandong (taken in July 2018). Image: Daily NK

The North Korean authorities are pressuring North Korean laborers in China to contribute more funds to underwrite large-scale state construction projects back at home.

Earlier this month, a Daily NK Special Investigative Team met with an employee of a North Korean restaurant in China, conducting an interview with him in a major city in China’s Liaoning Province. The man told Daily NK that “the authorities are asking for so much money for the Samjiyon and Wonsan construction projects that we have nothing left.”

The two construction projects are pet projects of Kim Jong Un. In his New Year’s Address, he stated that “the whole Party, the entire army and all the people should turn out to transform Samjiyon County into a model for modern mountainous cities, an ideal socialist village, and complete on the highest possible level the construction projects that represent the present era, including the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area and other new tourist areas.”

The North Korean authorities have since been forcing North Korean citizens to supply labor and supplies for the two projects. These demands are now reaching North Korean laborers deployed abroad.

“They continue to just ask for money. It seems like the demands happen one to three times a month. During the farming season it’s money for manure, and if you don’t have any to give then you have to borrow from others. If you earned 1,000 yuan in a particular month and they demand 1,500 yuan, then you have to borrow money to pay them. But what happens when they demand the same the next month, too? It’s unthinkable to say you didn’t pay during a criticism session, but it happens. You become the target of the session. Recently, I had to pay a lot to the authorities,” the source said.

He added that originally they were contracted to earn 3,000 yuan per month in 2015, but ultimately only around 850-1,000 yuan makes it to their pockets due to commissions taken by the authorities. However, in the case of this particular restaurant, workers receive a portion of the difference upon their return to the North.

“The workers who signed their contracts in 2015 still haven’t gotten raises. Women need a lot of things – they have to buy cosmetics and all sorts of clothes – so they only end up with 150-200 yuan a month. They receive the rest of their wages when they return home. They take out money from people’s 800 yuan salaries,” he said.

“Workers can earn around 3,000 dollars for three years of work. There were a lot of workers who complained that they weren’t getting all the money they were supposed to, but later they realized that the money was being saved so they could take it back with them to North Korea.”

The interviewee had also heard about the lives of North Korean factory workers deployed in Tumen and Hunchon, Jilin Province. Thousands of North Korean laborers working at factories in Hunchon receive around 600-650 yuan, or 800-900 yuan when their overtime pay is included, per month.

A restaurant in Dandong employing North Korean workers
A restaurant in Dandong employing North Korean workers (taken in July 2018). Image: Daily NK

“Restaurant workers all come from Pyongyang, but there are a lot of people from provinces in the Tumen/Hunchon area. They work at textile and manufacturing factories. All they do is work – the place is like the Kaesong Industrial Complex where things are all organized for the workers. They just do the work that’s given to them,” he said.

“They earn 600-650 yuan a month, and around 800-900 yuan with overtime. Restaurant workers have it a bit better because they can receive tips. The authorities, however, still take one-third of the tips they make.”

Restaurant workers can sometimes walk around freely, but factory workers can’t, the man added. He added that the lives of factory workers in China are preferable to restaurant workers because they get fed better.

“Restaurant workers can walk around freely sometimes, but factory workers can’t. Factory workers get 10 yuan to spend on food per day which means they can buy five or more kinds of side dishes, even ones with meat in them. The factory has a North Korean chef that makes them. Restaurant workers, though, just have rice with some cabbage and tofu. The restaurant owner who I work for doesn’t seem to do a very good job with employee meals compared to other places,” the source said.

The man also mentioned the UN Security Council Resolution sanctions on North Korea regarding its workers overseas. The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2397 at the end of 2017 in response to North Korea’s launch of a long-range intercontinental missile that required all North Koreans working abroad to return home within 24 months.

“North Korean workers cannot enter China right now. They are all likely to have to leave (back to North Korea) if the sanctions are enacted. The sanctions were put into place in December (of 2017) so they have to leave by this coming December. Everyone working in the restaurants and factories will have to leave,” he said.

Toward the end of the interview, the man cautiously told Daily NK about some thoughts he had after being dispatched to work in China.

“North Korea’s policies have to change. That’s the only way the people will survive. China was a terrible place to live in the past, but now no one worries about their next meal here. When I was ignorant about things I believed in the Party, but now that I’ve come here, I’ve realized they lied to me,” he said.