Controls tighten on North Korean overseas labourers

Saturday 4th April, 2015
North Korean overseas labourers at a construction site/Stock Photo

North Korean overseas labourers at a construction site/Stock Photo

Recent reports show that approximately 10 000 North Korean labourers – mostly youths in their 20s and 30s – will be dispatched overseas to in preparation for Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebrations. On March 25th, it was observed that hundreds of North Koreans arrived in China. The rest, it has been reported, will be dispatched on April 15th.

New Focus correspondents were informed via telephone that specific numbers of North Korean overseas labourers in their 20s and 30s have been sent to different provinces in China. The duration of the work ranges from six months to two years, in locations such as Dandong, Dalian and Shenyang.

Among these locations, the majority of labourers will be concentrated in Shenyang, where they will work on building railways. China is currently constructing a new rail system in this area, and the type of work expected from the overseas workers will mainly involve digging. On the other hand, inside North Korea, citizens wait in line, with hope in their hearts, to be chosen to work overseas. Inside sources from Yanggang Province revealed that during the selection process, there is a preference towards labourers who worked in businesses related to civil engineering or water supply and drainage. It was also revealed that this was an opportunity for factory owners and elites to fill their pockets.

To be sent overseas for work, approval must be obtained from the business admin or party members. Simple having a heart of hope is not enough. For formality’s sake, it is said that there is a preference towards those that possess qualities of diligence and loyalty towards the Party, but in reality, most candidates are chosen as a result of backdoor dealings with elites.

Most North Korean overseas labourers dispatched to China do know that their wage rate is significantly low, in comparison to the amount of work that is demanded of them. It is now common knowledge amongst North Korean overseas labourers that more than half of their wages are channeled back to the government. Still, it is better than nothing – even a measly portion of that wage is a sufficient economic incentive for North Koreans to work overseas, especially when considering the conditions they would otherwise face back at home.

Regarding the most recent projects in China, the North Korean government has tightened control over their workers with the installment of new rules.

As a basic rule, it is understood that all workers must move in groups of at least fifteen people. But furthermore, television viewing is strictly prohibited. This is because South Korean dramas play regularly on Chinese broadcasts. If any labourer is caught moving out of bounds, away from the workplace and watching television, they will be sent straight back to North Korea the next day.

Previously, North Korean overseas labourers were allowed some degree of freedom, even being able to leave the workplace, provided that they moved in groups of two or three. However, during the lead up to Kim Il Sung’s birthday celebrations, the rules have changed and controls have tightened significantly.

To conclude, it can be observed that the North Korean government, in an effort to raise hard currency, is increasing its export labour, and, in addition, tightening its grip on them, especially in light of foreign influences such as Hallyu (the Korean Wave). The North Korean government has clearly shown, once again, its concerns and fears regarding the threat of exposure to Western cultural influences.


Reporting by Park, Ju-hee


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