North Korea: Government-sponsored Labor Migration


René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

Historically, migration has benefited the economies where it has happened, but it has also led to popular antagonism.  The main arguement is usually about the numbers arriving and the nature of the immigrants  – often displaying traits of racism and ethnic contempt.  Today, many countries in Europe as well as the U.S.A. are trying to stem the tide of migrants and asylum seekers by putting up both physical and administrative controls.

However, a reverse pattern has been outlined as the result of investigative reporting by Ian Urbina in his article “Invisible Workers: How North Korea operates a forced-labor program in China” in the U.S. journal The New Yorker of 4 March 2024.  Urbina and his team of South Koreans, North Koreans in exile and a few Chinese interviewed North Koreans who had worked in China under North Korean government sponsored programs. The North Korean workers were usually accompanied by North Korean managers who oversaw their working conditions, received the income of the workers, and usually took their cut as well as sending funds to the North Korean  government providing a vital source of foreign currency.  The U.S. State Department estimates that there are a hundred thousand North Koreans working in China.

North Korean government officials carefully select the workers who are sent to China, screening them for their political loyalties to deminish risks of defection.  Workers usually sign two or three-year contracts.  Many of the Korean workers are women who work in seafood-processing plants whose products are largely exported.  Some 80 per cent of seafood consumed in the U.S.A. is imported, much from China.  Many of the women interviewed described enduring sexual assault at the hands of their Korean managers or their Chinese supervisers.

Working and living conditions are difficult. While many of the working conditions are in violation of International Labour Organization standards, there is little U.N. pressure for radical improvement.  Change may come through growing unrest by Chinese workers.  There have been an increasing number of protests and strikes by Chinese workers acting outside of any organized labor organization.  This unrest merits close watching by those  advocating reforms.  We will have to see if Chinese “workers’ solidarity” includes foreign migrant workers.


René Wadlow is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation and problem-solving in economic and social issues, and editor of Transnational Perspectives.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Jun 2024.

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