North Korean laborers risk much to earn little in China

Unification Media Group  |  2017-08-14 15:14

A special report team from Unification Media Group visited the border areas between China and North Korea in April to investigate human rights violations against North Korean workers dispatched to China. During the visit, the team met with various individuals, including workers officially dispatched by the state, those who elected to go to China to visit their relatives and were illegally employed, and local managers who worked alongside the North Korean workers. Despite the diverse personal stories, the common theme confirmed was that North Korean workers are continuously the subject of labor exploitation. Video footage with English subtitles captured during this investigation is forthcoming.

Kim Mi Ok (pseudonym) received a visa to visit relatives three years ago and now lives in Chinas Jilin Province. She works as a caregiver for an ethnic Korean grandfather with Alzheimers disease, and agrees to meet us while the grandfather is asleep. She moved to China with her son and states that she is happy to meet people from South Korea. 

Life was hard in North Korea. I had no choice but to come here. I left everything behind to come and earn money. I became determined to simply find a way to make some money. 

Mrs. Kims son entered the military in North Korea in perfect physical shape, but was discharged early with a broken ankle. Ms. Kim, a member of the Workers Party, was earning a little by selling goods in the markets, but it was insufficient to support her son and other family members. I felt so bad for him getting injured at such an early age. We couldnt get surgery for him because we had no anesthetic. All we could do was pour salt on it for treatment. 

We paid 3,000 RMB and were able to get him discharged from the army, Mrs. Kim said. But for a long time, he was injured and unable to eat much. His whole body was swollen all over, so I sent someone I knew to go and bring him home. He was so weak, he could hardly move. Mrs. Kim believed that in China she would be able to earn more money. It was her last source of hope.  

North Koreas overseas workforce is strictly controlled by agencies and government surveillance. The workers are categorized by social status - a system called songbun - and bribes are often necessary to secure a position. Those without the money or connections to secure official positions abroad sometimes opt for unofficial routes to work in China. Similar to Ms. Kim, many of these workers receive short term visas to visit family members, and end up staying longer to work.   

Mrs. Kim and her son overstayed their visas to earn more money. Because of their illegal status, workers like her are forced to endure working conditions that are even worse than those for officially dispatched North Korean workers. They have no access to any form of protection of their rights and are regularly subjected to discrimination. 

There is also a limit to the kinds of work that illegal laborers can obtain. Most are nannies, caretakers, restaurant workers or custodians. Nannies and caretakers are on call 24 hours. I have to take care of an elderly man with Alzheimers all day long, so I have no personal time for myself, Mrs. Kim said.

I prepare his food, manage his bathroom trips, clean, and speak to him. I dont have any regularly scheduled breaks. Its not easy work, but the pay is worth it. Theres nowhere in North Korea to earn this kind of money. Here, you can get money for cleaning the streets. All you have to do is work, and you can get paid. Thats great.  

Lee Yong Sim (pseudonym) has been working as a housekeeper in China for a year. Back in North Korea, Mrs. Lee was working in the markets and taking care of her sick husband. But after amassing a large debt, she heard that she could make more money in China from another local man, so she followed him in. But when she arrived, she was sold to an ethnic Korean man as a bride in China. She tried to escape, but was unable to.

I am currently taking care of an older ethnic Korean lady, Mrs. Lee said. The hardest part is that I have to constantly be on guard. The grandma keeps telling me to be comfortable, but I cant. Sometimes we eat together, but I never eat the same side dish that shes eating. I wouldnt want word to get out [that Im a defector]. I like that I can earn money here [in China]. Josun [North Korea] is frustrating because its so hard to earn a living.   

Seeing people in the same situation as me around here, I have learned that meeting a good homeowner [client] is important. People with good homeowners get medicine when they are sick. On the other hand, I have one friend who got chased out of her position when the homeowner said that she was coughing too much. We really dont have the luxury of being [able to take care of ourselves when] sick, Mrs. Lee continued.

Mrs. Kim agreed, saying, Some people regard us as Homeless North Koreans. The day I heard that, I went home at night and cried until it hurt. It was tough. I thought to myself, Why do we have to live like this? At the end of the day, the money justifies it.   

Visas need bribes. Bribes mean loans and debt

Mrs. Kim deliberately hides the fact that she is North Korean. I tell my homeowner Im Chinese to avoid any problems from popping up. If they know youre North Korean, your wages also drop. We cant tell people that we left our home country because it became too difficult to live there. People tend to look down on us. I have to lie all day long. Its like I have a hole in my heart, she said.
If employers believe theyre ethnic Koreans living in China, they can earn a monthly wage of 2,000-2,5000 RMB. The wages are set for different tasks. Those who take care of the elderly receive that much, and those who care for children get about the same. But taking care of the elderly is easier than dealing with a baby. If theres a problem with the baby, the parents can get very flustered. Thats why nannies that look after babies get a lot.  

However, Mrs. Lees client knows that shes a defector because she cant speak any Chinese. 

I couldnt speak a word of Chinese when I first arrived, but I bought a book and tried to study. I went to the grocery store to shop and would pay attention to what people were saying. I came home and tried to remember what they said and looked it up in my book. Thats how I studied. 

I get a monthly wage of 1,500 RMB, which is less than what a Chinese person would receive, said Mrs. Lee. Because Im a defector, Im happy with that amount. But I dont always get paid on time. Sometimes it comes in late, but I cant be too insistent. I also have to worry about how to store and hide my money. I sometimes stuff it in my pillow. But I worry about where I can safely store it. 

These illegal workers have a lot of expenses, including the bribe required to get a visa, interest on any loans they take to pay their bribes, and the money they send home to their families. After considering all these expenses, the defectors often have less than 100 RMB per month to live on. The homeowner provides us with food and a place to live, so we dont really need that much money. In some cases, theyll also provide basic necessities and cosmetics. Sometimes we buy cheap things for 10 or 20 RMB. 

In order to get a visa, you have to provide a 15,000 RMB bribe. I had no choice but to borrow the money. It took one year and a few months to actually get the visa. Some people wait as long as five years before they find out they cant get one. Even if you provide a bribe, there can still be delays. If you dont give a lot of money, you get pushed back, Mrs Lee added.  

The most troubling thing about the whole process is that interest accumulates on the loan. The only loans available in North Korea are private loans, so people are forced to deal with loan sharks. In Mrs. Kims case, she pays 1,000 RMB per month in interest. If she fails to pay the minimum amount in a given month, the following months interest gets doubled. Paying back a personal debt therefore becomes an extraordinarily difficult process. 

I have to quickly pay off my debt, so Im constantly thinking about earning money. Even if Im injured, I just ignore it and keep working. If I cant keep on top of the interest, I wont be able to keep working in China. I have to pay back the principal and the interest.   

An ethnic Korean businessman who supports North Korean workers added, I thought that only people with connections could come and work in China, but as Ive found out, anyone can get here with a bribe. They say a bribe costs about 10,000 RMB per person on the heavy end. But not many North Koreans have that kind of cash on hand. They borrow quite a bit, so its tough for them to pay it back with the added interest. When they do so, they seek out difficult work that tends to pay a little more.  

The prospect of getting caught and repatriated is also a constant source of anxiety, as harsh punishment would await her. A few months prior to meeting with Daily NK, Mrs. Lee was struck by a vehicle while walking down the street. Instead of calling for help or seeking medical treatment, she fled the scene. They wanted to go through the official route to report the accident to public safety officers, but I didnt want to risk getting caught, so I ran away, she explained. 

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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