North Koreans Increasingly Look For Work Abroad To Earn Higher Pay

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North Korean workers at a fish processing plant in Hunchun, China
North Korean workers at a fish processing plant in Hunchun, China
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

An increasing number of North Koreans, including relatively privileged residents of the capital Pyongyang, are seeking employment outside of the country’s borders to boost their earnings, sources say.

In the face of sanctions that prohibit labor exports from the Stalinist state, workers from the capital city of Pyongyang are looking to take menial jobs in China and Russia. They seek higher pay and a way to work around the local public distribution system that is now failing to meet their basic needs.

A Pyongyang-based source told RFA on November 10, “Pyongyangers are looking to enhance their careers by becoming cooks, waiters, tailors or construction workers abroad.”

“They think they will be able to make more money overseas,” the source said.

Proof of loyalty required

“People who want to go abroad for work have to go through a very strict selection process, so the authorities mainly choose residents of Pyongyang, because their backgrounds have already been verified,” the source said, referring to the government’s policy that limits access to the capital to only the most loyal of Kim Jong Un’s subjects.

“Those approved [to work abroad] are, of course, members of the Workers’ Party, who are preferred, and then members of the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League (North Korea’s main youth league, modeled after the Soviet Komsomol), or housewives,” the source said.

“Young people have shown a lot of interest in finding jobs that can be (done) overseas,” the source said. “Factories under the jurisdiction of the External Construction Bureau are the most popular, because factory workers are a big priority abroad,” the source added.

“[Hopeful workers] will even pay bribes to get these factory jobs!” the source said.

“The best jobs for people to be dispatched abroad for are cooks, waiters and tailors. They get paid $150 per month, which is much more than other overseas jobs,” the source said.

“Even though the Kim regime takes its cut they will still be making more money than ordinary people, so everyone wants to do it,” he said, referring to the large amount the government takes out of its exported workers’ pay.

Another source, also in Pyongyang said, “Since people are looking to go abroad for work, learning foreign languages is becoming a bit trend here.”

“Pyongyangers are taking FOLA classes at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, the Grand People’s Study House (the city’s central library), or even bribing tutors to get private lessons,” the source said.

Legally Illegal

“As relations with China are warming, many of the workers are being dispatched there,” the source said. “There are more and more brokers appearing to help place people in exchange for a fee, so the authorities are trying to find ways to regulate illegal activities like this,” the source added.

“However, the whole operation is dependent on bribes pocketed by officials, so there’s no way that we can expect the government to do anything about it,” the source said.

The export of North Korean labor was banned under a December 2017 UN Security Council unanimous vote to approve sanctions on North Korea aimed at depriving the Kim Jong Un regime of $500 million per year on the wages of an estimated 93,000 North Koreans working overseas.

The sanctions, aimed at depriving North Korea of cash to fund its prohibited nuclear weapons and missile programs, called for a freeze on new work permits, and would require host countries to send North Korean workers back by the end of 2019.

According to CNN, in January 2018 an estimated 50,000 North Koreans were working in Russia – many in construction in what the U.S. Department of State called “slave-like” labor.

Russia voted to approve the 2017 U.N. sanctions, but CNN quoted a Moscow-based Asia-Pacific expert as saying that these were approved grudgingly, and only after they were made as “toothless” as possible.

During Kim Jong Un’s flurry of summits with the presidents of the U.S. and South Korea in early 2018, attention was drawn to China’s spotty record in complying with sanctions.

U.N. experts and U.S. officials have long accused Moscow and Beijing, traditional allies of North Korea, of violating the sanctions that have been ramped up since Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.

China and Russia have argued in favor of easing some strictures to reward Pyongyang after U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met in June and Kim pledged to work toward denuclearization.

But the United States and other Western powers have said sanctions must be enforced until there is full denuclearization.

In the wake of Kim Jong Un’s trip to China in June, the repatriation of North Korean workers has come to a halt, and North Korea is reportedly dispatching workers there on a small scale.

Reported by Myungchul Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.





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