Recent reports suggest an unprecedented wave of unrest among North Korean workers stationed in China, indicating a rare pushback against the stringent control typically exerted by Pyongyang over its citizens abroad. South Korea's intelligence agency and researchers, including defectors with intimate knowledge of North Korea's operations, have highlighted incidents of protests and dissatisfaction among these workers, attributed to unpaid wages and the prolonged impact of pandemic-induced lockdowns, as reported by Reuters.
In a striking departure from the norm, as many as 3,000 North Korean laborers, associated with a military-linked trading company, reportedly staged protests last month in China, expressing their discontent over years of withheld earnings. Such large-scale expressions of dissent are virtually unheard of among North Korean nationals, given the state's rigorous suppression of any form of public dissent, which can carry severe repercussions.
The root of the unrest seems to stem from a complex interplay of international sanctions, COVID-19 border restrictions, and the North Korean regime's exploitative labor practices. According to the 2023 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, North Korea seizes up to 90% of overseas workers' wages, a policy that often results in "conditions amounting to forced labor." The pandemic has exacerbated these issues, trapping workers in China and preventing them from returning home, thereby amplifying their grievances.
Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), highlighted a specific instance where workers at over ten textile factories in Helong, a city near the China-North Korea border, engaged in violent protests over approximately $10 million in unpaid wages accumulated over four to seven years. The situation escalated to the point where North Korean officials had to intervene, paying several months' worth of salaries to quell the dispute.
This unrest coincides with a 2017 U.N. Security Council resolution, supported by China, demanding the repatriation of all North Korean workers by December 2019 to curb the flow of foreign currency into North Korea's sanctioned nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Despite these directives, significant numbers of North Korean workers remain in China, contributing to a secretive yet crucial source of income for the cash-strapped regime in Pyongyang.
The incidents in China reflect a broader pattern of exploitation and desperation among North Korean workers abroad, many of whom have been cut off from their homeland due to stringent COVID-19 border closures. Reports from defectors and individuals familiar with the situation paint a grim picture of life for these workers, who endure grueling conditions with the promise of wages that are often withheld or significantly reduced.
The international community, particularly South Korea and the United States, is closely monitoring these developments, which pose a diplomatic challenge for China. Beijing finds itself in a precarious position, needing to balance its enforcement of U.N. sanctions with its strategic relationship with North Korea. As the border begins to reopen, the fate of these workers remains uncertain, with Pyongyang keen on keeping them abroad to continue funneling money into the regime, despite growing discontent and the potential for further unrest.