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NORTH KOREA to replace 10,000 workers dispatched to China

North Korea to replace 10,000 workers dispatched to China

Many of the workers became stranded at the end of their China stint due to coronavirus and have not seen their families in years.

By Jieun Kim


Radio Free Asia (23.06.2021) – https://bit.ly/2UCub6i – North Korea is planning to repatriate 10,000 workers dispatched to earn foreign currency in China but were stranded by the coronavirus pandemic, replacing them with younger recruits, sources in China told RFA.


One of North Korea’s chief foreign currency sources is to dispatch workers overseas, then collect the lion’s share of their salaries.


North Korean labor exports were supposed to have stopped when United Nations sanctions froze the issuance of work visas and mandated the repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019.


The sanctions are aimed at depriving Pyongyang of cash to fund its prohibited nuclear weapons and missile programs.


Though many North Koreans returned home prior to the deadline, some were allowed to remain until their three-year visas were to expire in early 2020.


But in January 2020, Pyongyang and Beijing closed the Sino-Korean border to stop the spread of coronavirus, making a return home impossible.


“The North Korean workers here in Dandong are expected to be replaced soon. An acquaintance of mine who works for a company that employs North Koreans confirmed that some of the workers are cycling out,” a Chinese citizen of Korean descent, from the Chinese border city that lies across the Yalu River from North Korea’s Sinuiju, told RFA’s Korean Service June 20.


“The North Korean authorities will select about 10,000 workers from among those who have been waiting to go home for a long time but were stranded here due to the coronavirus pandemic,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.


According to the source, most of the workers who will be replaced are married women in their 40s who have not seen their families in North Korea since they left before the pandemic. Others who are being swapped out include workers of retirement age.


“The workers on the withdrawal list were scheduled to return home after their three-year visa expired at the end of 2019. But due to the sudden onset of the pandemic, they have been stuck in China and unable to find suitable employment. They have been working in whatever industry, doing whatever job they could find,” the source said.


“Meanwhile, the companies that hire North Koreans wanted to replace these workers due to various problems, but replacement was held up when the border closed. But earlier this month the North Korean embassy in Beijing ordered HR companies to come up with a list of 10,000 workers to send back,” said the source.


Some of these workers arrived in China as early as 2016, so they have been away from their families for more than five years, according to the source. Others reached retirement age while they were stranded in China.


“They were actually paid only 300 yuan (U.S. $46) of the 2000 yuan ($308) monthly wage paid out by the Chinese companies under contract. But even this money was not given to them and only recorded in the books of the North Korean HR company. The HR company promised to pay the entirety of their owed balance when they return home, but we’ll have to wait and see if that happens,” said the source.


A lump sum payment for three years of work should amount to 10,800 yuan ($1,666) that the HR companies would owe each worker, or about 108 million yuan ($16.6 million).


Though the workers are only getting 20 percent of what they earned, with the rest going to the government, they are still receiving about 70  times the North Korean monthly government salary, which according to the South Korea-based Korea Joongang Daily newspaper amounted to about 4,000 won ($0.66) in 2018.


Another source, also from Dandong, confirmed to RFA June 21 that he heard news that North Korea would send 10,000 younger workers to replace the returning ones.


“The North Korean workers on the withdrawal list are expected to return home through Dandong Customs soon,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.


“The workers welcome the return measures. Because of the closed border, many have been living here without knowing how their families are doing back in North Korea,” the second source said.


How they will return home—whether by train, bus or on foot—is unknown, according to the second source.


“Even in the midst of the international sanctions on North Korea, the 10,000 among the many tens of thousands of North Korean workers who are still earning foreign currency in the Dandong area will be replaced,” the second source said.


“Their entry into North Korea will be of great interest.”


The 10,000 workers who will return to North Korea have already been vaccinated against COVID-19 and will be authorized for return only after testing negative for the virus, the second source said.


About 30,000 North Korean workers in Dandong are employed in industries including textiles, electronics, accessories, and quarantine products manufacturing, as well as seafood processing and agriculture.


Though sanctions prohibit North Korea from sending workers overseas and preclude countries from issuing work visas to North Koreans, Pyongyang has been known to dispatch workers to China and Russia on short-term student or visitor visas to get around sanctions.


Photo credits: RFA

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NORTH KOREA cracks down on illegal phone calls to China and South Korea

North Korea cracks down on illegal phone calls to China and South Korea

Starving families risk their lives to contact relatives from abroad to receive remittances.


by Myungchul Lee and Jeong Yon Park


Radio Free Asia (16.06.2021) – https://bit.ly/3xQWTip – North Korea has recently begun a harsh crackdown on international phone calls to South Korea and China, which hard-pressed residents of areas near the Chinese border rely on as channels for remittances from relatives in exile, sources in the country told RFA.


Phone brokers who live close enough to the border to access Chinese mobile networks earn money charging high fees to help North Koreans living abroad send remittances to their family members through China.


But the government decided recently that such activity is a crime against socialism and the state and ordered the State Security Department to put a stop to it.


As food shortages brought on by the coronavirus pandemic have taken their toll on the city of Hyesan in the central northern province of Ryanggang, more and more residents there are willing to take the risk of calling on their contacts on the outside for money.


A resident of the city told RFA’s Korean Service June 9 that the crackdown, under the supervision of the Ministry of State Security, started last month and appears to be more thorough than previous campaigns.


“They are not only using security agents, but even students in the graduating class of the security college, so that this will be the strictest crackdown ever,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.


Because the students are unknown in the community, they are more effective than the regular agents.


“No one knows the identity of the security college seniors or how many were sent to each area of Hyesan. The reason why the Ministry of State Security selected only the students who were about to graduate is to encourage a fierce competition among them,” said the source.


“If they get good results by catching a lot of illegal phone users, they will be assigned to higher-level organizations before their peers,” the source said.


The people of Ryanggang, like most other parts of the country, have suffered under the depressed economic conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Jan. 2020, Beijing and Pyongyang closed the 880-mile Sino-Korean border and suspended all trade.


Because of North Korea’s dependence on trade with China, commerce came to an abrupt halt, factories closed down due to lack of materials, and food and fuel shortages became more pronounced.


Some residents have been able to weather the storm by arranging for money to be sent from abroad but now with the crackdown in full swing, they are left with two unfavorable choices, going hungry or risking punishment.


“The residents, who have been suffering from severe food shortages since the outbreak of the coronavirus, are ignoring the crackdown to continue to connect with the outside world,” said the source.


“Without their remittances, families here would starve to death, so they cannot help but contact their family members who live abroad,” the source said.


According to the source, the students in the crackdown are equipped with the latest wiretapping equipment and are sent to areas along the border to try to find illegal phone users.


“The residents continue to try to make phone calls even though they fear that they might die if they get caught. For them the help they receive from their family in the outside world is their last hope for survival.”


Another source, also a Hyesan resident, told RFA that the crackdown was “an unprecedented fearful wind,” and confirmed that students from the security college were deployed all over Ryanggang province.


“In the past, if you got caught making illegal calls to China or South Korea, you could avoid punishment by paying a fine or a bribe, but now since the crackdown, if they detect a call to South Korea or China, the phone brokers are sent to political prison camps and the callers are sent to labor camps, regardless of the reason for the call,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.


The second source said that the food shortage in Hyesan was the worst since the Arduous March, a Korean term used to describe the 1994-1998 famine that killed millions, or as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.


“National rations have completely disappeared, and borders are closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Many people have died of starvation. It’s just like the Arduous March,” the second source said.


“A resident who recently succeeded in making a call to South Korea said the risk was worth it because the whole family had been starving for several days and it was difficult to endure any longer,” the second source said.


Despite the harsh crackdown, the second source said people will continue to make illegal calls.


“Residents who are at the crossroads of life or death have no choice but rely on their family members in the outside world.”


According to a previous RFA report, authorities planned the crackdown after the government classified the act of making calls using illegal mobile phones or accepting money from North Korean refugees in South Korea as an ‘anti-socialist, anti-state criminal act’.


Sources in that report told RFA that authorities in May arrested 20 phone brokers from Hyesan who connected customers with North Korean refugees in South Korea or received money from them.


A North Korean refugee living in Seoul told RFA that her mother was arrested and under investigation for receiving money from her.


“I don’t know what to do. Until now, the money I have been sending from South Korea has allowed my family in North Korea to survive. But now I think about how the rest of the family will live. My mother has been caught and the remittance channel is completely blocked, so I can’t even sleep at night.”


While the exact number of illegal phone users in North Korea is unknown, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, which interviewed 414 North Koreans in the South, reported that 47 percent of them were in constant contact with their families in the North in 2018. Of those, about 93 percent said they called their families on the phone.


In the same survey, 62 percent said they had sent money to North Korea. Based on their answers, the center estimated that refugees in the South who send money to North Korea do it about twice per year, sending around 2.7 million South Korean won (U.S. $2,260) each time.


Each time they had to pay an average broker fee of almost 30 percent.


According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, more than 33,000 North Koreans have settled in South Korea since 1998, but only 229 did so last year due to travel restrictions in the countries along common escape routes during the pandemic.


Photo credits: AP

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NORTH KOREA taps workers in Russia to fund Pyongyang construction

North Korea taps workers in Russia to fund Pyongyang construction

Workers complain that they barely make enough for living expenses but now must pay even more to their government.


By Jeong Yon Park


Radio Free Asia (07.06.2021) – https://bit.ly/3j5nGmJ – North Korean workers dispatched to Russia must now pay their government an additional U.S. $100 in so-called “loyalty funds” to help cover the costs of a 10,000-home construction project in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, sources in Russia told RFA.


The workers, sent abroad by their government to earn foreign cash, were already paying the lion’s share of their salaries in loyalty funds. They were left with just enough to cover their own living expenses and a small remittance to their families back home, but the extra payments are now stretching them even thinner.


“Last week, I ran into a North Korean who works in Vladivostok who told me that he was very upset because the North Korean authorities ordered him to pay additional loyalty funds,” a Russian citizen of Korean descent living in the Russian Far Eastern city told RFA’s Korean Service on June 1.


“The order came at the end of April, and it says each person must pay an additional U.S. $100 per month,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “We know that the extra loyalty funds will go to housing construction in Pyongyang.”


The ambitious building project is the brainchild of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, who promised at the ruling Korean Workers’ Party congress in January to alleviate the capital’s housing shortage with 50,000 new homes by the end of 2025, including 10,000 in 2021.


Funding for such a major project would be a challenge in most years, but authorities have had to be even more creative as the North Korean economy is in shambles due to the double squeeze of international nuclear sanctions and the suspension of all trade with China since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020.


“The guy told me that none of the North Korean workers could be excluded from this additional allocation of loyalty funds, and that the authorities even threatened those in charge of managing the work force,” said the source in Vladivostok.


The source said that most of the North Korean workers in Russia are not legally employed through no fault of their own. They have yet to receive official work permits from the Russian government due to the pandemic, but their North Korean handlers are still making them work.


“He complained that the workers’ hours have increased to more than 10 per day on average, much more than when they were on work permits. Their income is also much lower than before. After loyalty funds, the workers are left with only $200,” the source said.


“The worker and his colleagues are unhappy with the government’s order to pay more,” said the source.


“He said that none of his coworkers had ever expressed dissatisfaction with the loyalty fund scheme, but now they are angry and ask where they can possibly earn enough money to pay more when all the places they can find regular work are shut down because of the coronavirus.”


Another Russian citizen of Korean descent from St. Petersburg, on the opposite side of the country, confirmed to RFA that North Korean workers there must also pay an extra $100 per month in loyalty funds to help with Pyongyang housing construction.


“When the orders came in it wasn’t only the workers who were complaining. Even the president of the North Korean human resources company, who had been responsible for urging the employees to pay the funds started to complain,” said the second source, also requesting anonymity for security reasons.


“So did the low-level party secretaries dispatched to the company and the security officers sent to keep watch over everyone. Everyone is complaining about it.”


“Thousands of these workers have been making regularly scheduled loyalty payments from the money they earned from all their hard work, which they have to hide from the Russian government,” the source said.


“The money they earn has come from dangerous work during the pandemic which takes a physical and psychological toll on them, and most of it had already been going to loyalty funds. Now the authorities are making them pony up for construction in Pyongyang.”


“No one can accept this,” he added.


Many of the workers are lucky to even make enough to cover their loyalty obligation, according to the second source.


“Some workers have not been able to make enough for their own living expenses, to say nothing of being able to remit the rest to their families… They are outraged that the authorities are telling them to pay more, saying they’ve reached their limit.”


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.


Following the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2397 in Dec. 2017, all North Korean workers in Russia were supposed to have been repatriated by the end of 2019, and host countries were forbidden from issuing new working visas.


North Korea had been able to get around this by sending workers to Russia on student visas and having them apply for work permits. Pyongyang had hoped to continue doing this beyond 2019, but the pandemic in early 2020 put a snag in those plans.


A source familiar with the North Korean labor situation in Russia told RFA in February that there were 2,000 to 3,000 North Koreans in Russia working to earn foreign cash for Pyongyang in violation of sanctions.


Photo credits: Yonhap News

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SOUTH & NORTH KOREA: A law banning balloons carrying leaflets to North Korea

CSIS (22.12.2020) – https://bit.ly/38zJa4e – The South Korean National Assembly last week approved legislation that imposes stiff fines and jail terms for sending leaflets, USB sticks, Bible verses, and even money across the 38th parallel into North Korea via balloons. Under the legislation, South Koreans could face fines of up to $27,000 (30 million South Korean won) and up to three years in prison for violating the law.


The legislation was adopted by the National Assembly in a partisan vote supported overwhelmingly by the ruling Democratic Party but boycotted by the opposition party. Opposition lawmakers refused to participate in the vote as a symbol of protest. The opposition parliamentarians attempted to delay passage of the legislation by nonstop speeches against the bill. Assemblyman Tae Yong-ho, who had been a North Korean diplomat and was deputy chief of mission at the North Korean embassy in London before he defected to the South, spoke for 10 hours. Tae said the law was “aimed a joining hands with Kim Jong-un and leaving North Korean residents enslaved for good.” But the Democratic Party used its three-fifths parliamentary supermajority to stop the speeches and bring the issue to a final vote.


The legislation now awaits the signature of President Moon Jae-in, and there seems to be little doubt he will sign it. The National Assembly is dominated by Moon’s political party, and his government has voiced its support for the bill. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha defended passage of the legislation arguing that freedom of expression should be limited because balloon leaflets “endanger the safety of people living in border regions.” She said, “Freedom of expression, I think, is absolutely vital to human rights, but it’s not absolute. It can be limited.”


Despite some claims that the balloons were endangering the safety of those living in the border region, little concrete evidence has been supplied about the danger. In recent years, in fact, the most common danger reported along the border has been North Koreans firing into the South to prevent a soldier from defecting or simply harassing South Korean border troops.


North Korean Pressure to End Balloon Launches


North Korea’s leaders are adamantly opposed to the balloons carrying leaflets and other information. In their April 2018 meeting, President Moon and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un agreed to end their psychological warfare and lower animosity at a time when both sides seemed positive about the possibilities of reconciliation.


Six months ago, Kim’s powerful sister Kim Yo-jong gave a furious denunciation of “South Korea’s inability to halt civilian balloon leafleting and demanded it ban the activity.” She called North Korean defectors involved in the balloon leafleting “human scum” and “mongrel dogs,” and she challenged the South to deal with the problem: “Now that the mongrel dogs are doing others harm, it is time to bring their owners to account. I would like to ask the South Korean authorities if they are ready to take care of the consequences of evil conduct done by the rubbish-like mongrel dogs who took no scruple to slander us while faulting the ‘nuclear issue’ in the meanest way at the most untimely time.”


Kim Yo-jong threatened that should Seoul not act as Pyongyang demands, it “had better get themselves ready for the possibility of the complete withdrawal of the already desolate Kaesong Industrial Park following the stop to tours of Mt. Kumgang, or shutdown of the north-south joint liaison office whose existence only adds to trouble, or the scrapping of the north-south agreement in military field which is hardly of any value.” [In North Korean usage, “south” and “north” are never capitalized in reference to the two Koreas.]


Just hours after Kim Yo-jong issued her tirade against the leaflet balloons, the South Korean government responded that it would take immediate action to prohibit the sending of fliers via balloon because they caused “tension” with the North. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Unification said, “most leaflets have been found in our territory, causing environmental pollution and increasing burden on local people to get rid of them.”


But the real risk for the Moon government is that by responding so quickly to the derisive dressing down from Kim Yo-jong, it may give Seoul the appearance of being overly eager to accede to Pyongyang’s demands. Such a response weakens Seoul’s ability to negotiate with the North. The quick capitulation by the South only encourages Pyongyang to take a tougher stance in the future.


North Korea underlined that it was less interested in rapprochement with the South than in getting its own way by force when a few days after these events, the North destroyed the large building in Kaesong built by the South Korean government as a joint liaison office where the two Koreas could maintain offices for better communication and cooperation. The two-year-old building reportedly had cost the South some $70 million, but it was, in the words of the North Korean official media, “tragically ruined with a terrific explosion.” The “tragic” action was, in fact, deliberate North Korean action.


The South Korean National Assembly took six months to adopt the legislation prohibiting balloons on the border, but it is clear that both the Kim family in the North and Moon in the South are concerned that time is short to make progress on reconciliation. Moon was chief of staff to South Korea’s president Roh Moo-hyun (February 2003-February 2008). Roh held his only summit with North Korea’s then-supreme leader Kim Jong-il in October 2007, and his term as president ended four months later. Moon himself has been anxious to make progress with North Korea so that he will not find himself out of time before making significant progress in engaging the North. His single five-year term ends in May 2022—in just 18 months. The sense of urgency appears to be driving the South Korean government.


The Impact of Balloons in Getting Information to the North


Balloons carrying leaflets, USB flash drives, and money are periodically launched into the North by South Korean human rights organizations. Their effectiveness is debated. Proponents argue that balloons are an important way of getting external information into the North, while opponents argue that they are an environmental problem and can be dangerous. The North’s crocodile tears for the environmental damage caused by balloon-carried leaflets are not matched by concern for the economic impact on the environment in the North.


A RAND Corporation study of publicly available information assessed the state of balloon and drone technology for delivering information into North Korea. The study compared efforts in Korea with early Cold War efforts using balloons to deliver information in Central Europe. Based on modeling, it concluded that balloons launched under favorable wind conditions could potentially penetrate deep into North Korea, but based on anecdotal reports, they do not get far beyond the border region. The study suggested that balloons are “saturating” the border area with leaflets, but they do not reach further into the country.


Studies conducted by U.S. international information organizations have assessed how North Koreans are getting external information based on interviews with refugees and travelers recently arrived from North Korea. There are limitations on access to information because of North Korean hostility to anyone seeking information about the country, but these studies represent the best currently available sources of information. This first study was done in 2012, but more recent information continues to suggest that balloon-delivered leaflets are not a principal source of external information.


The balloon launch events do have value to North Korean human rights groups in South Korea. They provide valuable media attention with frequent photographs and video images of huge balloons carrying information leaflets and other information to the North. For such groups, the media events are very useful in calling attention to their cause. The fact that the two North Korean defectors who have been elected to serve in the National Assembly were very vocal in their support of the balloons indicates their view of the value of such actions. While they may not be the best means of getting external information into the North, they do serve a very important role in the North Korean human rights community in the South.


Negative Reaction against the Ban in the United States and Elsewhere 


South Korea is obviously sharply divided over the issue of banning balloons, but vocal disapproval from South Korea’s allies has been harsh. The United States, which by tradition has given particular emphasis in its political culture to freedom of speech and expression, has been most critical of the legislation. There have been no statements of support from the United States for stopping balloon launches.


Reportedly, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun confidentially expressed concern about the balloon prohibition during his recent visit to South Korea. Due to the strong alliance relationship between the two countries, however, the former U.S. special representative for North Korean policy did not express these concerns publicly, but several sources indicate that he did convey them in private to senior South Korean officials. U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris also reportedly expressed U.S. concerns to South Korean officials. South Korean newspapers have also reported such expressions of concern.


In response to a press query on the leafleting ban, a State Department spokesperson said on Monday, December 22, “With regard to the DPRK, we continue to campaign for the free flow of information into the DPRK,” and “As a global policy, we advocate for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” While South Korean government officials have argued that the balloon ban does not infringe on freedom of expression, the legislation is clearly identified that way by opponents and some foreign governments.


Justice Michael Kirby of Australia, the former chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, also suggested that the incoming Biden administration is likely to have similar freedom of information concerns about prohibiting balloons. In an interview, Kirby cited Americans’ strong commitment to the freedom of information even when individuals disagree with what is being said. The Australian jurist expressed his opinion that the incoming U.S. president is “likely” to strongly oppose limiting freedom of expression.


Members of Congress have also spoken out critically of South Korea’s ban on balloons, including Representative Gerald Connolly (D-VA), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Korea, an organization of members who are generally very supportive of the South. Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX), another senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement saying that the legislation could “deepen the brutal isolation imposed on millions of North Koreans by the dictatorship in Pyongyang.” Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), the Republican co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives, said that the Commission will hold hearings on the South Korean law in the next few weeks.


Leaders of U.S. human rights organizations have likewise expressed concern about the new South Korean legislation. Manpreet Singh Anand, regional director for Asia-Pacific programs at the National Democratic Institute said, “Criminalizing those who are merely facilitating access to information can do irreparable harm to human rights defenders and will likely embolden the regime in Pyongyang to make more anti-democratic demands.”


Critics of the balloon ban legislation, in addition to Justice Michael Kirby of Australia, include Lord David Alton, an important human rights voice who is a member of the British House of Lords. Alton in a letter to the British foreign secretary said that “The purpose of this bill is to silence North Korean human rights and religious activities and voices from South Korean soil, in pursuit of the development of improved inter-Korean relations.”


Unfortunately, the balloon legislation has become a partisan political issue in South Korea rather than a serious effort to deal with North Korean human rights abuses or the inter-Korean relationship. There is no assurance that even with the silencing of freedom of expression in banning balloons that the North Koreans will take any action to improve inter-Korean relations. The consequence, however, could be erosion of the South Korean relationship with the United States, which is important for the people of both countries. If previous experience gives us any expectation for the future, the North is more likely to blow up another building, even if balloon-carried information is halted, than it is to make a significant positive gesture toward reconciliation with the South.



Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.

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