News reports on North Korean workers

December 9, 2012

Stories on foreign labourers — from Vietnam, Burma, and North Korea — have been circulating in Chinese media for some years (see an earlier post here). The news aggregator World-Story has made a compilation of recent media stories, some of them focusing on North Korean workers. This was occasioned by reports in South Korean media suggesting that North Korea was planning to send 120 thousand guest workers to Northeast China before the end of the year. The articles, reprinted in Chinese papers, suggested that these workers, including ICT specialists, had originally worked in South Korean-invested enterprises in the North but lost their jobs after the deterioration of North-South relations.

Global Times writes that a Singapore suit maker has moved its garment factory from Pyongyang (!) to Dandong, on the Chinese side of the Yalu River, where power supply is more stable, but continues to operate with over 400 North Korean workers. A Taiwanese investor based in Shanghai is also planning to open a factory in Dandong and hire North Korean workers. These workers earn around 1,500 yuan a month, compared to between 2,000 and 3,000 for Chinese workers. This figure, however, is a fiction because the workers themselves only get 150 to 200 yuan, while the rest goes to the North Korean government. (Another article, in 中国经济周刊, suggests a less drastic cut of 60%.)  It appears that the workers are mostly women, and according to the article, there are over 20 thousand of them in Dandong.

Although North Korean regulations only permit North Korean citizens to work in North Korean-owned businesses abroad, the article says that some of the workers have trainee visas. Dandong reached an agreement with North Korea that allows the workers to extend their visas without returning to North Korea. The workers are not allowed to leave the premises of the factory or to change employers. According to an article on 经济观察网, Dandong is “in the process of establishing a plan for North Korean labour.”  Two other border cities, Tumen and Hunchun, are said to have plans to bring in 10 to 20 thousand North Korean workers on intern visas, apparently modeled after the Japanese and South Korean systems that also use this euphemistic visa to bring in labourers. In fact, Hunchun apparently signed an agreement back in 2010 for 2,000 North Korean workers, and Tumen has set up a North Korean Industry Park 朝鲜工业园, with the North Korean ministry of trade and a company from Hebei Province as partners. But none of the articles reports any evidence yet of a massive influx of North Korean labour on the scale mentioned in the South Korean reports; in fact, applying for North Korean workers is described as a complicated process that sometimes ends in rejection.

The articles show how, at a time when China does not have a national immigration system, various municipalities are beginning to experiment with their own systems. The regime that seems to be in the making with North Korean workers is an extreme example of the type of exploitative labour migration regimes, in force in Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, that deprive workers of most rights while maximizing profits and minimizing the burden on the states involved. It is also another example of the logic of exception, i.e. the suspension of prevailing rules and protections in particular areas, that has been crucial to China’s development since the creation of the Special Economic Zones in the late 1970s.

At the same time, it is clear that as Chinese cities pursue such arrangements, they will be running against central interests. While Dandong hopes to create a new industrial boom on the backs of cheap North Korean workers as industrial wages go up in China, the central government is concerned about the potential for social unrest if there is an impact on Chinese wages or employment.

Finally, just as Aihwa Ong has suggested that the thrifty and self-providing Asian immigrant has become the ideal subject of the American economy, in neoliberal times the North Korean (and the Vietnamese) migrant seems to have become the model worker for China: self-disciplined, well-organised volunteering for overtime without being asked to, doing the work of two Chinese workers — or so the Chinese entrepreneurs cited in the articles say. “Most importantly, they are honest workers who don’t try to bargain,” one said. The idolization of North Korean workers comes at a time when Chinese workers are increasingly prone to strike for better labour conditions and higher wages, not only in China but also abroad. The recent illegal strike by Chinese bus drivers in Singapore for equal pay made headlines as the first in 25 years. In such conflicts, media in China is increasingly likely to take the side of Chinese nationals and demand better protection for them, as in this report on China Radio International.So China is becoming a source both of particularly onerous examples of the “East Asian migration management model” and of challenges to it.