China adjusts to influx of cheap North Korean labor

Posted on : 2012-09-13 14:32 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
North Korean workers come to China as part of broad economic cooperation between two countries
 China. (by Song Kyung-hwa)
China. (by Song Kyung-hwa)

By Song Kyung-hwa staff reporter in Dandong

In Dandong, where the inflow of North Korean labor is most active, there is a factory operated by a Singaporean company. The company makes men’s suits for export to Europe and used to operate a factory in Pyongyang. Due to problems with the electricity supply, they moved the factory to China where the situation is more stable. In this factory in Dandong, 400 factory workers in their 20s and 30s are North Korean. They work in the factory and live in a nearby company dormitory.

A Taiwanese businessman who used to operate a factory in Shanghai also has plans to move his operations to Dandong. His company has completed construction of facilities and plans to hire around 100 North Korean workers.

Another factory that produces sports apparel for export which used to be in Shandong province moved to a city close to the North Korea-China border. The factory was set up in Tumen and North Korean workers were dispatched for the first time last May. There are 300 North Korean women who work in this factory. A vinyl production factory about a kilometer away also employs North Korean women.

The activities of these North Korean workers are restricted. They live in dormitories or facilities provided by the factories. For lunch, they have been seen going in groups of 20 or 30 from the dormitory to the cafeteria, a 3-minute walk. Mr. Wang, a Han Chinese, 59, who works in a factory nearby said, “About two months ago, I began to notice young North Korean women in their 20s going to get water in groups of two or more. I only know which factory they are in, but I know nothing about their private lives. And the other companies or factories don’t know about them either.”

Some workers have come on one-month or three-month short-term training visas to set up under an official contract between the city and the North Korean government and extend their stay. They are dispatched with a male supervisor who is in charge of keeping an eye on them. It is said that the North Korean government would like to send more supervisors to watch over the female workers, but the factories have refused to allow them, which has been a source of some conflict.

The supply and demand of North Korean labor follows market fluctuations. It depends on the region, but the average wage of a Chinese factory worker is around 2000 to 3000 Yuan a month (between 355,000 and 535,000 won or US$315 to US$475). Meanwhile, the average wage of a North Korean worker is around 1500 Yuan a month (around 267,000 won or US$234). Because North Korean workers do not have the freedom to change workplaces, there is no reason to worry about a sudden outflow of labor.

North Koreans take the opportunity to work in China because wages are higher there than at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the industrial complex set up by South Korea just north of the DMZ. The average minimum wage set at Kaesong last month is US$67 (about 76,000 won) and last year the monthly wage of a North Korean worker there was around US$110 (around 124,000 won)

Not all of that money goes to the factory workers. There are differences among regions and factories, but on average, the individual worker receives around 150 to 200 Yuan at the end of the month. On average, around 600 Yuan is provided for the individual worker. There are factories where this is then pooled together and redistributed to senior and ordinary workers. The rest of the money goes to the North Korean government. At times the money is used for insurance or a fund for common expenses.

It is estimated that more than 20,000 North Korean women are working in textile or food processing factories in the North Korea-China border region. There are also some North Korean workers who are in more skilled fields like IT or animation. Counting the undocumented workers, the number is much larger. An official from KOTRA’s (Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency) Shenyang office said on Sept. 12 that it has been confirmed recently that since Kim Jong-un took power, North Korea has agreed with the different Chinese border cities to dispatch 120 thousand workers, the largest number ever.

Chinese businessmen are watching closely the next move by North Korea as more and more young Chinese workers seek white-collar work instead of physical labor. Securing a work force that is secure and well managed is a great advantage. It costs between 400 and 500 Yuan to cover the expense of one worker including accommodation and meals. But the cheap labor makes up for this. And it is for this reason, more and more Chinese businesses prefer to hire North Korean workers.

A person involved in the export of North Korean labor said that at first the salary was given directly to the individual workers. “But when asked next morning, they all said that they were left with only 150 Yuan. After hearing this, we just gave the lump sum to the manager to be distributed to workers.” Even with this deductions, the money that North Koreans earn is far more than what they could make back home. Thus there is much competition and the selection process is quite thorough. The agent said, “They do a thorough investigation of three generations and if there is any problem, that person is excluded. And only one person per family can come.”

Another agent said something similar, “I heard that they have to pay a commission of 500 to US$800 to the government to be part of the selection process.” Moreover, he said that the North Korean government wants to send more workers but the Chinese government is trying to limit the number out of concerns of dragging down wages for Chinese workers. “Even within China, there are conflicts and differences of interest between cities and city and provinces when it comes to determining tax and management of economic cooperation with North Korea,” the agent said.

There is another site where this so-called ‘interest’ is creating new ideas by the Chinese when it comes to “trading with North Korea.” An example of this is a greenhouse and flower exhibit hall in Rason Special Economic Zone, near Hunchun, Jilin province, that is operated by a Chinese company. The building is situated on a main road and has a big sign in red that reads “Exhibition of Celebrated Flowers.” This is because in this greenhouse, there are two very special flowers that have the names of North Korea’s two great leaders. The “Kim Il-sung flower” and the “Kim Jong-il flower” are produced and sold there. Since its opening last year, this greenhouse has been featured in the North Korean media and it is a very famous place all along the border cities.

It is said that this company maintains this greenhouse to improve its reputation and to network with members of the North Korean Communist Party. When major exhibitions are held, North Koreans are invited. One such big exhibition is scheduled for October. When these exhibitions are held, the Chinese businessmen trading with North Korea stop there and buy one of these celebrated flowers which cost them around 800 Yuan each (around 142,000 won or US$124). A Chinese businessman in Tumen said, “They say that when we have to cross the border to North Korea, if we take one of these flowers, the customs procedure will be much easier. And even if there are any problems, they turn a blind eye. That is why many people are buying these flowers.”

However, not all business between North Korea and China is rosy. An iron-smelting factory in Helong City, Jilin, that was visited on Sept. 5, had to close its doors. It used to be a place where iron from across the Yalu River was brought from North Korea‘s Musan iron mine and processed. A railroad was expected to run from the two cities by October of last year in order to increase the amount of iron brought into China. But the construction was never completed. A Chinese company called the Yanbian Cheon-ji Industry Trading Company had rights to the Musan mine for fifty years starting in 2005.

There are many guesses as to why this happened: “North Korea was asking for a price increase of 20% while the price of iron has declined in the rest of the world;” “There was trouble between the Chinese government and the new Kim Jong-un regime on negotiating development rights;” “There was a downfall of development due to differences with foreign investors about investing in electrical power.” No one knows clearly what the reason was, and there are still busy trying to figure out what is the real situation.


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