In an unprecedented turn of events, as many as 3,000 North Korean workers in China staged protests last month, highlighting the poor living and working conditions they face. The South Korean intelligence agency reported that these conditions have led to “incidents and accidents,” marking a rare occurrence of large-scale protests by North Koreans.
The protests were fueled by a combination of factors, including unpaid wages and the lingering effects of pandemic lockdowns. According to two South Korean government-affiliated researchers, including a former North Korean diplomat, the discontented workers are employed by a North Korean military-linked trading company. The researchers revealed that the protests occurred in various locations, with some workers at more than 10 textile factories in Jilin province staging violent demonstrations over unpaid wages totaling about $10 million over four to seven years.
Caught in a Tug-of-War
The issue sheds light on the challenges faced by North Korean laborers working abroad, with Pyongyang exerting tight control over them. The 2023 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report highlighted that North Korean workers often face conditions amounting to forced labor, with up to 90% of their wages seized by the government for funding nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The report also noted that wages are withheld until the workers return to North Korea, making them vulnerable to coercion and exploitation.
The recent protests indicate a disagreement over the fate of these workers. While China aims to repatriate them to comply with UN resolutions and prevent defections, North Korea is determined to maintain the number of laborers in China, using their earnings to fund the government.
Harsh Conditions and Exploitation
Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, revealed that North Korean government officials intervened by paying several months’ worth of salaries to the disgruntled workers to end the dispute. Ko Young-hwan, a North Korean diplomat-turned-defector advising the South Korean unification minister, disclosed that North Korean consulate officials were sent to Jilin province to manage the situation after workers held some managers hostage.
The 2017 UN Security Council resolution, backed by China, called for the repatriation of all North Korean workers by December 2019, citing their exploitation for funding North Korea’s prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs. However, the estimated 20,000-100,000 North Koreans working in China, primarily in restaurants and factories, remain a challenge for enforcement.
The protests by North Korean workers in China represent a significant event, highlighting the human cost of geopolitical tensions and the exploitation of vulnerable populations.