North Koreans who were employed as slaves in China

Reports surfaced last month alleging that North Korean laborers in China had rioted when they learned they would not be paid and that Pyongyang was using their earnings to manufacture weapons. Protests by North Koreans are practically unknown because the country’s government maintains absolute control over its people and public dissension is punishable by death. Although unverified, the riots have raised questions about the safety of the tens of thousands of North Koreans who work abroad to support the financially strapped government. According to a former North Korean employee who talked with the BBC in China, some underperforming enterprises withheld wages from their employees.

 

A message alleging they are being “exploited like slaves” has also been spotted from someone posing as an IT employee. The report was leaked to media last month by a former North Korean ambassador with contacts in the area, who said that on January 11th, riots broke out across many North Korean-run textile factories in northeast China. Defector to South Korea in the 1990s Ko Young Hwan told the BBC he heard the workers erupt when they discovered years’ worth of unpaid salaries had been moved to a Pyongyang war preparation fund. “They got violent, and started breaking sewing machines and kitchen utensils,” recalled Mr. Ko. “Some even locked the North Korean officials in a room and assaulted them.”

 

Mr. Ko’s account of these protests cannot be independently verified, thus the BBC is unable to confirm it. North Korea has tight security around its plants in China in addition to its extreme secrecy. An estimated 100,000 North Koreans are employed overseas by the North Korean government, primarily at industries and construction sites in northeastern China, where they generate significant foreign exchange for the sanctions-hit government. Pyongyang is expected to have made $740 million (£586 million) from 2017 to 2023. The majority of their revenues are sent to the state directly. However, Mr. Ko is aware that during the pandemic, the textile workers at the companies that went on strike were told they would receive their money back when they returned to North Korea, and their wages were completely withheld.

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