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North Korean Women ‘Rented’ to China for Work Disappear From Shanghai Dorm, Presumed Defected: Report

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: March 23, 2022
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In a photo taken on January 21, 2021, two women pose for a photo reading a newspaper carrying a report made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Eighth Congress of the Workers Party of Korea (WPK), on a street in Pyongyang. (Image: KIM WON JIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Twenty North Korean women working for a clothing company in Shanghai have reportedly vanished from their dormitory along with their manager in February – a case kept very quiet by both Chinese and North Korean officials until Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on it yesterday (March 22). 

North Korea’s authoritarian government “rents its citizens” out as virtual slave labor to companies in Asia — with most of their paid earnings taken by the regime in Pyongyang as much-needed foreign currency. North Korean workers sent abroad are tested for loyalty, kept in prison-like conditions, and threatened with severe punishment, even execution, if they attempt to defect.

“In mid-February, an entire group of North Korean women working at a clothing company in Shanghai disappeared when they were supposed to be in quarantine,” a source who lives in China’s northeastern coastal city of Dalian, told RFA’s Korean Service on March 19.

“The 20 female workers … and their manager were gone, and the owner of the Chinese company that hired them called the North Korean manager, but he did not answer the phone, so [the owner] went to the dormitory to find that they had all disappeared,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Desperate measures

Sources believe the textile workers and their manager risked their lives in a desperate bid to seek refuge. They remain on the run today because China routinely defies United Nations’ policies on refugees by sending North Korean defectors back home to face punishment or worse. 

China and Russia often bypass U.N. prohibitions on using North Korean forced labor by granting them “student” or “tourist” visas so they can legally work in other countries.

The U.N. states, “any repatriation of the defectors would be a violation of Article 3 of the U.N. Convention against Torture, or UNCAT, which requires no government expel, return or extradite a person to another country where there are sufficient grounds to believe the individual would be subjected to torture.”

While many North Koreans flee their country by crossing the Yalu River border into China, escape by chosen workers dispatched to other countries is rare because the government sends only its “most loyal citizens abroad and monitors them closely,” RFA reported. 

Once in China, refugees typically try to evade capture by then traveling to countries in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia and Thailand. 

According to the Korean Workers’ Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, the number of North Korean defections to the South has dropped in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Since March 2020, Pyongyang has sealed its borders and raised its country’s alert level to the highest of three stages last year. All foreign aid workers were also told to leave the country in December 2020. 

Pyongyang has been known to punish the family members of escapees, referring to them as “defectors,” and they are often executed if found and sent back to North Korea. The source said that following the workers’ escape, the textile company owner immediately reported the women and their manager to the North Korean consulate in Beijing.

“The consulate has requested cooperation from the Chinese police and is trying to track them, mainly by monitoring railway stations heading towards the border,” the source said, adding that “The North Korean consulate is under a state of emergency to find if they have already escaped and are in Southeast Asia or already entered South Korea.”

Tens of thousands of North Korean workers in China 

RFA estimated earlier this year that tens of thousands of North Korean workers were employed in China before the pandemic began in Wuhan, but tightening lockdown measures seen in recent months across the Mainland have eliminated many of the jobs they filled. 

The lockdowns from China’s new wave of outbreaks related to the Omicron variant, plus strict travel restrictions imposed by Beijing ahead of the Winter Olympics, has resulted in a decrease of North Korean laborers. 

“Food processing, garment, and electronics factories, where many of the North Koreans work, have been shut down since early December. The North Korean workers have been hit hard,” a correspondent in the Chinese border city of Dandong told RFA in January.

The Dandong source said North Korean workers often seek work in China, even though Pyongyang seizes 75 percent of their income because they “eat much better” than they would at home – but supply disruptions brought about by the Chinese regime’s stringent “Zero-COVID” measures have eliminated that incentive.

According to a report compiled by the U.S. State Department on human trafficking in North Korea, an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 North Koreans are currently working in China, though that number has likely decreased exponentially since the start of the pandemic.