North Korean laborers sacrifice everything for families back at home

Unification Media Group  |  2017-09-01 17:40

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.

Living as quietly as a dead mouse while walking on eggshells around my landlord is difficult, but the most difficult times are when I think about the child I left behind in North Korea and my hometown," one North Korean laborer in China told Unification Media Group's special reporting team.
Many North Koreans cross the border into China to earn a living for their families. They toil away each day, and endure with hopes of being reunited with their families back home. 
At times I think that there is no hope. Id rather go back home and pass away peacefully than die working like this. But I need to keep making money so that my children in North Korea can live, and this thought keeps me from going back home, said Ms. Kim (alias, 53), who works as a carer in China.

My daughter got married while I was here; she must have been so upset that I wasnt there. She gave birth to a boy, my grandson, and I havent even seen him. When Im alone at night, I cant stop thinking about home, and there are times when I dream about going home. Though, the prospect of actually going back and making a living there is depressing." 
Many of the female North Korean factory workers dispatched to Chinese sewing factories are exhausted from their heavy workloads and dream of returning home. A Korean-Chinese factory foreman based at a sewing factory in Dandong noted, 19 and 20 year old girls work over 12 hours a day without any breaks, and its very demanding. These girls are doing hard labor at an age when they are still young enough to be seen as the baby of the house by their families, and so they often say I want to go back to my parents back in North Korea.'"

However, it is nearly impossible for these laborers to return home before the end of their contracted period. They have their hands tied as they need to pay off personal loans for the bribes they paid to be dispatched overseas and the accruing interest payments. 
North Korean laborers leave their homes and brave difficult placements in unfamiliar foreign countries knowing that they must provide for their families. Lack of income-earning opportunities in North Korea entice residents to turn to opportunities in China, where they can at least expect to be paid for their work. They take such chances half-heartedly for their families out of love and duty, and spend many teary nights missing home and the people theyve left behind. 

The new intake of laborers all say that life in North Korea is worse than last year. Hearing these comments makes me think I wont be able return home this year, Ms. Kim said. 

Many get fixed in this mindset and some have not been able to leave China for over 10 years. One worker came to China when her son was a little boy. Now he is going to the army and she hasnt seen him since she left."

When asked why she hasnt gone back to North Korea, she managed a bittersweet smile and explained, Ive thought about going back several times, but the family prefers someone to earn and send money. They wont like it if I go back empty-handed. 
A female restaurant worker I knew only had her mother left after her father and brother passed away, said a North Korean businessman on a temporary business trip to China. I had to make a call back home for her one time, and her mother pleaded with me to let her daughter stay in China, even just for one more year to earn money. Her mother told me to tell her daughter that staying in China is the best for her mother. 
The lives of North Korean laborers are made more difficult by the discrimination and neglect they experience. Some people stereotype North Korean laborers as being quick-fingered thieves, said a Korean-Chinese businessman who aids North Korean laborers. But the only things they take are worn-out saw blades that Chinese people no longer use and throw away. According to the businessman, these tools are hard to come by in North Korea so laborers take them to share with friends in North Korea. 

There is a commotion when North Korean laborers open the employee refrigerator to have some soup with their rice. They are scolded when they open the fridge without the permission of Chinese workers. Chinese workers shame their North Korean counterparts for doing so, he added.

A North Korean restaurant manager in Yanbian said that North Korean and Chinese workers work in the same restaurant but North Korean workers are discriminated against and treated like beggars. 

"They are served different work meals and have separate resting areas. A North Korean server briefly went in and out of a kitchen for Chinese employees. Shortly after, the server was accused of stealing ingredients and was treated like a criminal. In the heat of the accusation, the enraged female North Korean servers said, We are out here doing what we are asked to do so dont ignore us just because we dont speak Chinese," he said, concluding with the remark that North Koreans only have bitter memories as they face rejection and contempt in Chinese workplaces. 

Ever since the Chinese authorities began collecting hefty fines for illegal North Korean laborers overstaying their visas, North Korean laborers wanting to leave China have found themselves in a catch-22 situation. The Chinese authorities began imposing fines on laborers working past their visa period last year. Those wishing to go back to North Korea must pay a fine of 1,000 Yuan (approximately 166,000 South Korean Won) for every month they overstay their visa, Ms. Kim explained.  

Someone I knew went all the way to Dandong to go back to North Korea, but ended up coming back. She had overstayed a year and was told to pay 10,000 Yuan (approximately 1,657,000 South Korean Won) by the Chinese authorities.She was extremely disappointed because she had saved all the money for her and her family. She would have to give all her savings away to pay for the fine. She was frustrated because she was unable to return home and her fines would grow by the day."

Heavy interrogations await those laborers who do manage to return home. According to Ms Kim, the interrogations are just a ploy to collect further bribes. Once you return to North Korea, you are forced on your knees and interrogated for three months. They ask you about what you did in China, who you met and if you met any South Koreans, she explained.

You are required to fill out an investigation form detailing how you spent your money earned in China, and you essentially end up writing about every experience you had during that time. The reason behind the long interrogation process is to squeeze out bribes. You are set free only after you pay these bribes. 

*Translated by Suki Son
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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