North Korean Workers in China Riot over Unpaid Wages; 2,000 Occupy Factory, Kill Plant Manager

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
North Korean flags

About 2,000 North Korean workers dispatched to China’s Jilin Province started a riot in mid-January triggered by anger over unpaid wages, a North Korean source told The Yomiuri Shimbun.

According to the source, the first large-scale demonstration by North Korean workers also highlights the rebellious spirit of the country’s young, who are not content to live in slave-like conditions. Many former female soldiers in their 20s also participated in the riot, the source added.

The riot occurred at a clothing manufacturing and seafood processing factory in Helong, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, within the province. The factory is located in a development zone filled with factories and is near the Tumen River that flows along the China-North Korea border.

The North Korean workers were dispatched by a company under Pyongyang’s defense ministry to earn foreign currency.

Angered at long-term unpaid wages, the workers on Jan. 11 occupied the factory and took hostage North Korean personnel dispatched to manage and monitor the employees. The workers declared that they would go on strike until their wages were paid.

North Korean authorities attempted to bring the situation under control by mobilizing the consulate in China and personnel from the secret police and the State Security Department, but the workers refused to let them enter the factory. The employees assaulted one of the hostages, a management representative from North Korea. The riot continued until Jan. 14, and the representative was killed.

The riot occurred after word spread that other workers who returned home last year had not received their wages despite promises that they would be paid in Pyongyang. Generally, when a North Korean company dispatches workers to Yanbian, it receives about 2,500 yuan to 2,800 yuan (about ¥50,000 to ¥56,000) per month from the Chinese company. Of this amount, 700 yuan to 1,000 yuan is usually given to the workers, after deducting 800 yuan per month for accommodations and meal expenses and 1,000 yuan per month of the North Korean company’s share.

However, since the China-North Korea border was closed in 2020 due to COVID-19 countermeasures, the North Korean company had taken all the workers’ money in the name of war preparation funds. The total amount reached several million dollars, which was reportedly given to the North Korean leadership and embezzled by company executives.

North Korean authorities temporarily placated the workers by paying them their unpaid wages, while identifying about 200 people who played a leading role in the riot and repatriating half of them.

“They will be sent to a political prison camp and will not escape severe punishment,” the source said.

According to the source, the incident was reported to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and government heads are in shock. Because other North Korean workers dispatched abroad are reportedly in similarly poor conditions, the impact of the Yanbian incident is likely to spread to other regions in countries such as China and Russia where Pyongyang sends workers to earn foreign currency.