LA Times: China Hires Tens of Thousands of North Korean Guest Workers

Barbara Demick writes in the LA Times on July 1 that China is inviting tens of thousands of North Korean guest workers into the country, the first wave of perhaps as many as 120,000 this year.

The deal , which has not been publicly announced by either Beijing or Pyongyang, would allow … seamstresses, technicians, mechanics, construction workers and miners to work in China on industrial training visas.

Some North Korean workers are already in an underwear factory in Tumen, a town in Jilin Province hugging the North Korean border. Others are reportedly in Dandong, a larger border city of Liaoning Province on the Yalu River, and in Hunchun, another Jilin border town.

The workers are said to be selected carefully by the North Korean government to ensure their loyalty, such a persons who are married and have relatives in the Workers’ Party. They will be very tightly controlled while in China.

Demick describes the guest worker as a Chinese effort to prop up the North Korean government, which will earn remittances from the deal. While that may be true, I’d guess the profit motive is at least as strong. China’s northeast doesn’t have a generalized labor shortage, but that doesn’t mean underwear factories aren’t looking for ways to trim a few percent off their labor costs.

Most North Korean workers in China are illegal border crossers who do hard labor for $1 a day and bowls of rice.

Others are defectors who are trying to escape across the border to China, then earn enough cash to pay smugglers to bring them to South Korea.

China’s new Exit-Entry Law, just enacted on June 30, seeks to address this more complex reality of guest workers, undocumented workers, and refugees. The law seeks to more carefully monitor legal foreign workers as well as more aggressively fine, detain, and deport undocumented workers.

Another provision provides for screening of persons seeking refugee status. It’s hard to know whether this provision is mere window dressing designed to put China’s domestic law in superficial compliance with the country’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Last week, South Korean papers reported that four North Korean defectors repatriated by China were executed.


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