As the U.N. sanctions-mandated Sunday deadline for overseas North Korean workers to repatriate draws near, workers stationed in Russia are returning home, while in China, North Koreans appear to be ignoring sanctions entirely.
The sanctions, imposed over the past decade in response to North Korean nuclear and missile tests, are intended to deprive Pyongyang of foreign cash and resources that could be used to expand those banned programs. The government of Kim Jong Un takes most of the earnings of workers it sends abroad to earn hard currency.
According to RFA sources, many of the workers in Russia intend to return sometime next year.
“They say they’ll be back next year,” a Russian citizen of Korean descent from Vladivostok told RFA’s Korean Service on Dec. 15.
“On September 5th, Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora said that no North Korean workers would remain in Russia by December 22nd. After Matsegora’s announcement, the withdrawal of North Korean workers began in earnest,” the source said.
The sanctions forbid countries from issuing new work visas to North Koreans, but the source said the workers have ways around that stipulation.
“North Korean workers who came to Russia in 2017 with five-year work visas are expected to return home in time for the U.N. deadline, then change their visas and be sent back to Russia,” the source said.
“Newer North Korean workers, who were dispatched late last year, have one-year training visas. Some of them are working at construction sites on three-month tourist visas,” said the source.
The source said the workers were able to acquire tourist or training visas by lying on their applications.
“On their training visa applications, they state that the purpose of their training is to learn Russian or construction techniques, but they are all actually working as construction workers,” the source said.
“Once they arrive in Vladivostok, even if the training visas have nothing to do with construction, the North Koreans labor at construction sites,” the source said.
The source said the North Korean authorities conceal this fact by making all the workers on training visas check in at fake training centers before they go out to work on construction sites.
Another Korean-Russian, from Ussuriysk, told RFA on Dec. 16 that workers there also vowed to return in 2020.
“They even say that they’ll be back on training visas or tourist visas, because they know their current work visa won’t be valid anymore,” the second source said.
“I know that North Korean workers in other cities as well as here in Ussuriysk have almost all gone home, but they usually return home at this time of year anyway because there’s no construction work in the winter,” said the second source.
The second source said that the workers on training visas admitted that the training centers they attend to keep appearances are pointless.
“They ask, ‘Why do laborers like us need to learn Russian?’ or, ‘Why would we be in Russia for construction training when construction training is also available in North Korea?’” the second source said.
“The fact that [some] North Korean workers are sent to Russia on group tour visas when it’s nearly impossible for residents to travel abroad proves that there are many ways [the government] will try to circumvent U.N. sanctions,” the second source said.
Meanwhile, China appears to be ignoring sanctions, as many North Korean workers continue to enter the country even as the deadline approaches.
“On the 16th, about 150 North Korean workers arrived in Donggang, a suburb of [the Chinese border city] Dandong, and immediately started working at a construction materials factory,” a trader from Dandong told RFA on Thursday.
“The newly arrived workers are women in their 20s and early 30s, and the factory that hired them has never hired North Korean workers before,” the third source said.
“This factory is quite large, with more than 300 Chinese workers in addition to the North Korean workers they just hired,” said the third source.
“North Koreans working in and around Dandong are usually from the Pyongyang metropolitan area, but this time the new workers were selected from Onsong and Kilju, North Hamgyong Province. It is a bit unusual that they were sent here instead of [the] Yanbian [Korean Autonomous Prefecture],” the third source said.
A fourth source, also from Dandong told RFA, “These days, in addition to the restaurants run by the North Korean government, many other private restaurants hire young North Korean women in their 20s.”
“Up until early this year, I thought the North Korean restaurants were going to close down once the workers return home, but it looks like all is well in the restaurant business.”
North Korea-themed restaurants in Russia, China and several other Asian countries are known to be popular not for their food, but for their performer-waitresses, usually young North Korean women who are forced to take a year off from education for “overseas training.”
“Waitresses at North Korean restaurants are also expected to be among those subject to withdrawal under the U.N. Security Council sanctions, but their numbers have increased dramatically these days,” the fourth source said.
“There is a strong feeling that China, a permanent member of U.N. Security Council, is openly violating the U.N. resolution [that stipulated sanctions on North Korea],” the fourth source added.
“The phenomenon of North Korean workers continuing to enter rather than leaving all at once clearly goes against the U.N. resolution. The Chinese government is continuing its own course at a time when [some members of] the Security Council is calling for North Korea sanctions relief,” the source added.
China denies it is violating sanctions it helped approve as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, but Beijing has stepped up calls for sanctions relief amid a nuclear diplomacy stalemate between Pyongyang and Washington.
China and Russia Monday put forth a draft resolution proposing that the U.N. Security Council lift sanctions-mandated bans on North Korean exports of statues, seafood and textiles in what Moscow said was a move to encourage dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington.
The U.S. rejected the proposal for sanctions relief as premature, noting that North Korea has recently tested what state media called a “defense science” asset last weekend “will be applied to further bolstering up the reliable strategic nuclear deterrent” and has threatened further tests.
Reported by Jieun Kim and Joonho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.