17.01.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

North Korean Workers Return Home. Will Pyongyang Face Insurmountable Problems?


The deadline, established by the United Nations Security Council in December 2017, for ensuring all DPRK workers employed abroad return home was on December 22, 2019. As a result, all North Korean restaurants in Moscow closed down, and up until December 20, the Air Koryo airline had increased the number of flights between Pyongyang and Vladivostok from two to five per week. By November 19, 23,200 workers from the DPRK had come back home.

The situation in China is similar, on December 20, all the North Korean restaurants in the prefecture-level city of Dandong, in PRC’s Liaoning province, closed down. A source has reported that employees at the restaurants had received a notification from the DPRK instructing them to return home. Any eateries established jointly with Chinese partners remain open but employ staff from outside of the DPRK. At the same time, South Korean media outlets have reported there have been no signs that North Korean workers on tourist or other types of visas in the PRC are leaving the country. They have also affirmed that both China and Mongolia have refused to divulge the exact number of workers from the DPRK within their borders, which makes it impossible to ascertain how many of them have returned home.

In 2015, it was estimated that more than 50,000 North Korean workers (earning from $1.2 to 2.3 billion per year) were employed abroad, mainly in Russia and China. There were approximately 30,000 DPRK citizens working in Russia, according to official records from 2017. In 2019, ROK news outlets estimated that there were 100,000 North Koreans employed overseas earning more than $500 million a year.

In the current context, the author would like to remind the readers about the role played by these people in the economy of the DPRK. After spending two to three years in Russia, it is a fact that North Korean workers can return to the DPRK with $4,000-6,000 in savings. And as they are going back home on a Vladivostok-Pyongyang flight, the plane is full of goods that these workers had purchased on their salaries (which can be potentially “confiscated”) and that range from VCRs to car tires and industrial or agricultural equipment, clearly meant for use by small businesses.

In Russia, workers from the DPRK are highly valued since they are not involved in any criminal activities and are easy to manage. North Korean citizens also tend to isolate themselves from the rest of the world which reduces the chances of conflicts between them and locals. This is why local businesses were very keen on increasing their numbers and considered workers from the DPRK a sound alternative to those from Central Asia and China.

In view of all of this, it is tempting to ask the question “To what extent will the repatriation curb the chances of North Korean workers of earning money abroad?”. South Korean media outlets have pointed out that the measure will have a limited impact because existing loopholes in legislation will allow DPRK citizens to receive tourist visas instead of work permits.  According to professor Kim Dong-yub, China and Russia could change the visa status of these workers to another, such as travel or study, as both of these nations “need the North’s labor supply and vice versa”. Other reports state that next year, the DPRK is planning on sending approximately 10,000 of its workers to the PRC, including those who returned to North Korea from other UN members states.

It appears that blaming the Russian Federation and China for harboring North Korean workers or enabling them to travel abroad on tourist visas will be added to the list of accusations levelled against these two nations.

We would also like to highlight that sanctions have not yet been imposed against the DPRK’s tourist industry. Hence, it remains one of the few sources of revenue from abroad for the country. In light of this, ROK news outlets have highlighted the fact that a range of tourist facilities, possibly meant for Chinese visitors, is being built in North Korea. At the beginning of December, the DPRK opened a “tourist spot focusing on hot springs in Yangdok County” in its South Pyongan Province. Preparations are underway for the inauguration of the new tourist complex in the Wonsan-Kalma area, located in an isolated peninsula. It will offer its guests a range of hotels and facilities that meet international standards. Samjiyon County, situated near North Korea’s border with China, is also viewed as a tourist draw. However, in reality, the place is more of a pilot project rather than a tourism initiative, aimed at developing remote regions of the nation.

Such efforts are viewed as part of North Korea’s attempts to diversify its revenue sources in response to the sanctions imposed by the UN. Apparently, China is also aiding DPRK’s economy by providing help and spending its tourist dollars, on account of the fear that there could be an economic downturn. For instance, in 2018, the PRC gave North Korea $56 million in aid, and as of August 2019, it provided the DPRK with financial help amounting to more than $35 million.

In conclusion, it really does not seem reasonable to believe that the repatriation of North Korea workers would deal a “death blow” to this nation.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.

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