North Korea intends to repatriate 10,000 workers who were sent to China to earn foreign currency but were stranded by the coronavirus pandemic, replacing them with younger recruits, according to sources in China.
One of North Korea’s main sources of foreign currency is to send workers abroad and then collect the lion’s share of their wages.
North Korean labour exports were supposed to have ceased when United Nations sanctions froze work visa issuance and mandated the repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019.
The sanctions are intended to deprive Pyongyang of funds used to fund its illegal nuclear weapons and missile programmes.
Despite the fact that many North Koreans returned home before the deadline, some were allowed to stay until their three-year visas expired in early 2020.
However, Pyongyang and Beijing closed the Sino-Korean border in January 2020 to prevent the spread of coronavirus, making a return home impossible.
“North Korean workers in Dandong are expected to be replaced shortly. “An acquaintance of mine who works for a company that employs North Koreans confirmed that some of the workers are cycling out,” a Chinese citizen of Korean descent from the Chinese border city of Sinuiju, across the Yalu River from North Korea, told RFA’s Korean Service on June 20.
“The North Korean authorities will select approximately 10,000 workers from among those who have been waiting to return home for a long time but have been stranded here due to the coronavirus pandemic,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
According to the source, the majority of the workers who will be replaced are married women in their forties who have not seen their families in North Korea since leaving before the pandemic. Workers at retirement age are among those being replaced.
“The workers on the withdrawal list were set to return home when their three-year visas expired at the end of 2019. However, due to the pandemic’s sudden onset, they have been stranded in China and unable to find suitable employment. They’ve been working in whatever industry they could find, doing whatever job they could find,” according to the source.
“In the meantime, companies that hire North Koreans wanted to replace these workers due to a variety of issues, but replacement was hampered when the border closed. According to the source, “earlier this month, the North Korean embassy in Beijing directed HR firms to compile a list of 10,000 workers to be returned.”
According to the source, some of these workers arrived in China as early as 2016, so they have been separated from their families for more than five years. Others had reached retirement age while stranded in China.
“They were actually paid only 300 yuan (US $46) of the monthly wage of 2000 yuan ($308) paid out by the Chinese companies under contract. Even so, the money was not given to them and was only recorded in the North Korean HR company’s books. The HR company promised to pay the entire owed balance when they returned home, but we’ll have to wait and see,” said the source.
A lump sum payment for three years of work should amount to 10,800 yuan ($1,666), which HR firms should owe each worker, or approximately 108 million yuan ($16.6 million).
Though the workers only receive 20% of their earnings, with the remainder going to the government, they are still paid roughly 70 times the North Korean monthly government salary, which in 2018 amounted to about 4,000 won ($0.66), according to the South Korean-based Korea Joongang Daily newspaper.
Another Dandong-based source confirmed to RFA on June 21 that North Korea would send 10,000 younger workers to replace the returning ones.
“The North Korean workers on the withdrawal list are expected to return home through Dandong Customs soon,” said the second source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
“The workers are pleased with the return measures. Because of the border closure, many people have been living here without knowing how their families in North Korea are faring, according to the second source.
According to the second source, it is unknown whether they will return home by train, bus, or foot.
“Even in the midst of international sanctions against North Korea, the 10,000 North Korean workers who are still earning foreign currency in the Dandong area will be replaced,” a second source said.
“Their entry into North Korea will be closely watched.”
According to the second source, the 10,000 workers who will return to North Korea have already been vaccinated against COVID-19 and will be allowed to return only after testing negative for the virus.
Dandong employs approximately 30,000 North Koreans in industries such as textiles, electronics, accessories, and quarantine product manufacturing, as well as seafood processing and agriculture.
Despite the fact that sanctions prohibit North Korea from sending workers abroad and countries from issuing work visas to North Koreans, Pyongyang has been known to send workers to China and Russia on short-term student or visitor visas in order to circumvent sanctions.