Because North Korea is so uniquely opaque and repressive, it’s often difficult to gauge the level of dissent against, or popular support for, its regime. That repression follows North Koreans when they’re sent abroad to earn money for the regime, usually through the implied threat to punish the workers’ loved ones back in North Korea if they step out of line.
The recent and unprecedented mass defection of 13 restaurant workers from Ningpo, China, is an example of this. In a transparent attempt to extort the 13, North Korea offered to arrange a meeting between them and their relatives. You’d have to be obtuse to doubt just what message the Pyongyang intended to send; if you aren’t, it should be chillingly obvious. It’s the same message that Pyongyang sent to refugee Pak Jong-suk, with the Associated Press as a willing accomplice in its extortion, before its agents found her in Pyongyang and told her that her son and his family would be banished to starve in the countryside unless she returned.
Never in my adult life have I been quite convinced of the existence of God, but if you are, pray for the families who are at the mercy of this highly enriched isotope of evil. For now, let’s stipulate that whether God exists or not, there’s ample evidence that evil does.
History also tells us that evil governments eventually die. And if this extraordinary new report from the Chosun Ilbo is true, Kim Jong-un’s EKG just skipped another beat. It claims that 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait recently “rose up against the state security agents who keep constant watch on them” over unpaid back wages, after being told to fork over yet more “loyalty” payments for Kim Il-sung’s birthday.
The workers reportedly shouted out at the foreman and demanded their back pay instead, and some tried to assault him. According to sources, the state security agents at the site were able to stop the workers from lynching the foreman, but North Korea’s Ambassador to Kuwait So Chang-sik was apparently furious at the North Korea construction firm for not being able to contain them.
Kim Young-hwan at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights said, “It is unprecedented in North Korea to protest in front of state security agents.” [Chosun Ilbo]
Well, not quite. Mass incidents in North Korea are rare, but not unprecedented; I’ve compiled a long history of them here. There was a spate of them in 2009 after Pyongyang redenominated the currency and effectively confiscated the savings of millions of its poorest people. Recently, there have even been scattered reports of mass defections, fraggings, and strikes in the North Korean military.
The protest took place after state security agents visited Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE in February and March to weed out potential defectors among workers there. They investigated the movements and mobile phone records of workers.
“The protest occurred a week after the investigations ended,” a source said. “Pyongyang’s pressure has mounted to the degree where workers sent overseas are losing their tempers.” [Chosun Ilbo]
Four days before this, according to the report, two other North Korean workers ran away from their barracks in Qatar, and sought refuge in a local police station because “they could no longer endure Pyongyang’s extortion after working in the scorching heat for more than two years but earning nothing.”
A construction company in Qatar recently laid off around 20 North Korean laborers, and the two escapees were among them. They are in custody but are at risk of being sent back to North Korea because they are unemployed. [Chosun Ilbo]
If there’s any truth to this, U.S. and South Korean diplomats should intervene at once with the Kuwaiti and Qatari authorities to prevent these workers from being repatriated. But is it true? On the “maybe not” side of the ledger, it’s one report from the Chosun Ilbo citing “sources.” On the “maybe” side, it could be worse — it could be The Hankyoreh. And if, as is customary with the Chosun Ilbo, the sources are in the South Korean National Intelligence Service, the NIS gets a few things right, too.
There are also some tantalizing clues that give credence to the report. Recall that in March, two North Koreans were arrested at the airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka while carrying $150,000 in undeclared cash from Oman to China. The cash consisted of “wages” stolen from workers “at construction sites in Oman.” The Sri Lankan government later confiscated the cash. From there, presumably, the two couriers would have smuggled the cash back to Pyongyang, perhaps by train, wrapped in tin foil and stuffed into pillowcases, because “transfers of U.S. dollars and Chinese yuan were completely blocked by banking systems,” and customs in Dandong isn’t letting bulk cash through the border.
Which is excellent news in its own right — it means enough of the banks in China are complying with sanctions to damage the regime’s internal cohesion.
I’m guessing Yonhap has no way of knowing whether the North Korean workers were based on Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, or the UAE. Either way, if the overseers of North Korean laborers in the Gulf states are one enterprise, the loss of $150,000 and the effect of sanctions could have put them under metamorphic pressure to recoup the lost “loyalty” payments by working their charges even harder.
From any number of recent stories we’ve seen, the regime has imposed steep quotas on trading companies, and isn’t accepting excuses from those who fail to meet them. The 13 restaurant workers who defected cited frustration and fear over rising demands by Pyongyang for “loyalty” payments they couldn’t keep up as a reason for their defection. According to the Daily NK, women fisheries workers in Dandong, China are being forced to work 13-hour days, even when they’re sick, for a diminishing pittance.
“After receiving strong demands from the North, a Chinese fisheries company [name redacted to protect the source] in Dandong, which employs about 200 North Korean workers, wired six months’ worth of their wages to Pyongyang,” a source with knowledge of North Korean affairs in China said, asserting that the move was to help the regime secure more money for the upcoming Party Congress.
The Chinese firm usually sends most of the 500 USD allotted for each worker’s wages to Pyongyang, and the remaining 150 USD is handed over to the North Korean manager to distribute to the employees. However, recently, even the smaller proportion of those wages is not being reliably received. “Because of that I’m hearing more of the female workers say they would prefer to return to the North than stay in China,” the source said.
These female employees not only have long working hours but normally only get two days off per month and are rarely allowed to take leave, even if they are ill.
The prepaid wages have now added more strain on the workers. Having already been paid for full working hours, the North Korean manager is forcing employees to work even if they are sick. “Some have fallen so ill that they have asked to be sent back home, but they’ve been turned down with no room for consideration,” the source lamented. [Daily NK]
Just keep this in mind when the AP reports that as horrible as conditions for these overseas workers are, they’re better than in North Korea. Conditions from place to place certainly vary, but across the board, they appear to have gotten much worse this year. Eventually, even selected, loyal North Korean workers have a breaking point. That’s an indirect effect of sanctions. The situation stands to get worse soon, following the Treasury Department’s inclusion of North Korean labor exports in Executive Order 13722, and the recent visit to Seoul by the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, signaling a new enforcement effort.
South Korea and the United States are working together to determine the extent to which North Korea uses its workers abroad to raise money for its weapons of mass destruction programs, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues said Tuesday.
“It’s very clear that North Korea uses a great deal of its resources for nuclear weapons, for missiles, for military equipment,” he said at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. “And to say that this dollar from this worker is going to a bomb, you don’t have that kind of ability to account. It’s a process that’s happening and yes, we need to see what we can do to prevent it from happening.”
“At this point, we’re beginning a process, and one of the things we’re doing is looking for additional information, trying to make sure we know what’s happening and where the workers are, what companies they are working for,” King said. “We don’t have a lot of information at this point. We’re talking with the South Korean government and sharing information with them. We’ll continue to consult with them.”
Some of the information they need is which companies are hiring the workers, what goods they’re producing and whether these products are being sold in the U.S. [Yonhap]
Other North Koreans abroad are also being called home. The Telegraph cites a Radio Free Asia report that Pyongyang is calling its students back from China, “apparently out of concern that more of its citizens are planning to defect.” North Korea’s ambassador to Germany is the latest diplomat to be called back to Pyongyang, possibly because he’s being held accountable or Germany’s condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear test.
The signs here suggest that Pyongyang’s overseas ventures may be entering a death spiral: sanctions result in assets being blocked or confiscated, or depress earnings, and make it hard to repatriate “loyalty payments.” In its rising financial desperation, the regime pushes the Bureau 39 bosses to earn more. The Bureau 39 bosses push the workers harder until they break. Then, out of fear of defections, and as I predicted, the regime starts calling home the people it needs to earn cash. That only increases the burdens on those who remain. If the people the regime judges to be among the most loyal aren’t, you really have to wonder about the emotional state of those still locked up inside North Korea.