Rhetoric vs Reality: 5.24 and North Korean Workers in Dandong

By | December 03, 2015 | No Comments

At the Dandong railroad station, gateway to North Korea | Image: Matthew Bates/Sino-NK

At Dandong railroad station, the gateway to North Korea and home to an estimated 20,000 North Korean workers employed by Chinese enterprises. | Image: Matthew Bates/Sino-NK

In August 2008, then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke. Medical knowledge contended — quite accurately, it would turn out — that thenceforth he had somewhere in the region of three years left to live. (The passing of time meant that Kurt Campbell, then U.S. Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was wrong when he said the same thing in February 2010; by that time the figure was less than two.)

Kim had been pondering the who and the how of his own succession since at least the turn of the century. There had seemingly been de facto competition between Kim Jong-un and his brother Kim Jong-chol, and Kim Jong-un may in fact have emerged the winner as early as 2007.1)For more on this matter and much, much more, see incumbent Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung’s graphic novel, “Manhwa Kim Jong-un [만화 김정은; lit. “Cartoon Kim Jong-un”],” Zeitgeist Publishing House, 2011: 47-53. However, it was only after his stroke that, in January 2009, Kim began in earnest the process of educating the chosen one for practical rule. One of the government’s main priorities was to fund the transition, which, with all its attendant utilitarian bargaining and grand modernizing construction projects, was bound to be expensive. And so it was that at this time, North Korea began to export a rapidly increasing quantity of labor. Much of it went to China, the object of some of Kim Jong-il’s most strenuous diplomatic overtures in 2010 and 2011.

The outcome of this is that, inter alia, there are now an estimated 100,000 North Korean workers at large in China’s three northeastern provinces. Of these, no fewer than 20,000 are believed to have jobs in Dandong, just across the border from Sinuiju and by far the largest city in the immediate China-PRC border region. Compared with the pre-transition era — roughly 2008 and before — such numbers are little short of staggering.

Yet there remains little written about this anthropologically intriguing cohort. One RFA report suggests that workers are under orders to evade and obstruct any journalist who tries to engage them. The treatment of Brice Pedroletti, the Le Monde correspondent in China, and a Singaporean photographer in Tumen in 2015 would tend to support this unverifiable thesis — though, in truth, North Korean workers in China would presumably not require stern orders from above to make them wary of foreign journalists wielding cameras near their workplaces.

Fortunately, one anthropologist affiliated with Seoul National University, Kang Ju-won, is energetically challenging the status quo. With an anthropologist’s deft sensitivity to issues of power and place, Kang is bringing rigorous analysis to the dynamic contemporary borderland milieu. There is his 2013 book, Today, I am making and breaking borders: a cultural anthropological guide to reading the border city of Dandong  [나는 오늘도 국경을 만들고 허문다: 국경도시 단둥을 읽는 문화인류학 가이드], and a collection of articles that appear in Korean on the digital media website Pressian. The following is one of these, from October 19, 2015. 

Kang Ju-won, “‘Made in China’? Actually, a North Korean…” [Kang Ju-won’s ‘Reading the Borderland’] Dandong, another Kaesong Industrial Complex” [“‘메이드 인 차이나’? 사실은 북한 사람이…” [강주원의 ‘국경 읽기’] 단둥, 또 하나의 개성 공단], Pressian, October 19, 2015.

Dandong and the Kaesong Industrial Complex as described in Jo Jung-rae’s <Jeonggeulmalli>

There is a key moment in the third volume of Jo Jung-rae’s2)Jo is the best-selling author of the historical trilogy Taebaek Mountain Range [태백산맥; 1988, 1989, 1991] and Han River [한강; 2003]. <Jeonggeulmalli [정글만리]>, which was published after the 5.24 Measures.3)The 5.24 Measures (or May 24 Measures), a package of economic sanctions against North Korea, were implemented in 2010 by the Lee Myung-bak administration in response to the March 26 sinking of a South Korean naval corvette, the ROKS Cheonan, by a North Korean torpedo off the west coast of the Korean peninsula. The measures were intended to halt all economic activity between the Koreas, except for operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Over in Manju (Manchuria; Northeast China) there is this Joseonjok (ethnic Korean with Chinese citizenship) working for our company. He recently got in touch with me to say that there are North Korean women working in some of the factories on the banks of the Yalu around Dandong. He wondered whether we should give some of our work to them, too, since their salaries are cheap and we are all compatriots. (pg. 296)

As a businessman, the protagonist finds it an enticing idea, but given the political situation between South and North, he decides against it.

I think it might be better not to. Inter-Korean relations have all but broken down. Mt. Kumgang tours have stopped, and they aren’t approving any civilian aid deliveries whatsoever. The only lifeline is the Kaesong Industrial Complex. In these uncertain times, if we were to give work unnecessarily to women from the North then we could end up taking a lot of heat. It could turn into a political problem at any moment. Businessmen should stick to business. (pgs. 296-297)

That is how Jo Jung-rae portrayed the circumstances for a “North Korean worker” in a Chinese factory in Dandong in and around 2010. Although just a novel, it is a reflection of a specific reality. And yet the protagonist’s decision does not match my participant observations in Dandong. Some South Korean businesspeople are not giving up in the face of the troubles that exist between South and North. They are finding legal ways of making use of North Korean laborers in Dandong. The result is that, even after the 5.24 Measures, Dandong is playing the role of “another Kaesong Industrial Complex” for both South and North.

An Image of South and North Making a Living Together

When I made participant observations while living in Dandong during 2006-7, the main target populations for my research were traders, North Korean female service staff working in North Korean restaurants, and people from Sinuiju who had crossed the border on short-term permits. But every time I have been there since 2010, this has also included “North Korean laborers” working in Chinese factories. By 2015 there were around 20,000 of them.

As a member of South Korean society, I should not meet North Koreans. Because this could look like a violation of the 5.24 Measures. Even when I do have participant observation records and photos, since the 5.24 Measures I have been unable to express things in my writings just as they are. Nevertheless, it is possible to indirectly record the ways they live. There are diverse examples that convey the reality of Dandong. Like the diverse ways that South and North are getting by there.

You won’t find any mention of North Korean workers in the business activities of the South Koreans who utilize Dandong’s Chinese factories. This is why the South Korean businesspeople in Dandong are actually making a different choice to the businessman in the novel <Jeonggeulmalli>.

In the winter of 2014, I accompanied a Korean-American businessman looking to use Dandong’s North Korean labor for the production of clothing. The acquaintance who came to meet us in Shenyang was “Joseonjok  B,” a man whose factory employs North Korean workers. Let’s compare what he said in the car on the way back to Dandong with the protagonist’s opinion in <Jeonggeulmalli>.

“A few days ago some businessmen came to my factory from South Korea. They came because I have 50 skilled North Korean workers, and I introduced them to a few more factories employing upward of 300 people. That factory you can see across the highway has been employing North Korean workers for a few years now; they make brands for the famous South Korean conglomerate XXX. There are also a few sewing and seafood factories in downtown Dandong that have links with South Korean businesses.

South Korean businessmen ask a lot of questions. North Korean laborers are working here, so is there any problem exporting to South Korea!?! I keep it simple. What problem would there be? This is a South Korean signing a contract with a Chinese person running a Chinese factory. I am also Joseonjok, but I am Chinese. Clothes made by skilled North Korean laborers are exported to South Korea, the US, Japan and all over from Chinese factories in Dandong. This is the reality. It’s nothing like the way South Koreans who don’t have any idea about the situation in Dandong think.  All the South Korean businesspeople I know are making great use of this setup.

On a different note, some of them have even been making products in Pyongyang for export to South Korea for a long time. That is not a problem, either; there is always a way. I heard that a guy who was concerned because of the 5.24 Measures thought about renouncing his South Korean citizenship, saying that if he did that he could make clothes in Pyongyang any time!”

As I listened to him talk, it became clear that he was showing how even South Korean businessmen use Dandong’s Chinese factories for their projects. North Korean laborers work there, but they are Chinese factories. In other words, the economic activity is, ultimately, between South Koreans and Chinese. The South Koreans who come to check on production don’t need to meet the North Korean laborers. Because there are the Joseonjok. This is a place where the 5.24 Measures have no effect.

Now: 2015. The present situation in Dandong suggests that from an economic standpoint, not to mention the political and diplomatic effects, there is cause to worry about the effectiveness of the 5.24 Measures. Dandong is a place in China, not North Korea, where South Koreans can utilize the power of North Korean labor to maximize their economic benefits. With no regard for the 5.24 Measures, in the last 4-5 years Dandong has established itself for both South and North as “another Kaesong Industrial Complex.” In the eyes of businesspeople, including ones from South Korea, Dandong’s Chinese factories with their North Korean workers are economically appealing.

Dandong, where you can also taste kimchi made by North Korean workers…

The next day, Joseonjok B takes us around his factory on the outskirts of Dandong. He is accompanied by South Korean C, who has lived in Dandong for more than a decade. Thanks to Joseonjok B, who acts as the middleman, for the last five years South Korean C has been producing small volumes of clothing in Pyongyang. This time around, South Korean C talks endlessly to a potential Korean-American business partner about the location and status of local factories that employ North Korean labor.

“There are 300 North Korean workers in the factory across the street; they mostly make clothes for sale to America,” and, “That factory has more than 1500 North Korean workers; they make high-end suits for South Korea and other countries close by. The factory we are going to today is one that I visit every day. Because I have to check on production.”

When we arrive at the factory parking lot, South Korean C and I say that we will wait in the car. Knowing as I do that there will be North Korean workers there, it is an inevitable decision. As a few North Korean female workers who appear to be in their early twenties pass by, only the Korean-American, an American citizen, and Joseonjok B enter the factory.

Following his inspection of the facility, the Korean-American says quietly to me, “I confirmed with my own eyes that not only in Pyongyang but even here in Dandong one can utilize the cheap labor of North Korean workers,” and shows me some photos he has taken with my camera. There on the camera screen, North Korean workers are making clothes beneath a printing of the expression, “Byeoldeulmani anda” [별들만이 안다; lit. Only the stars know]4)In South Korea a more common expression would be “Haneulmani anda” [한늘만이 안다] or “only God knows,” implying that nobody does..

Joseonjok B must have read my mind, as he has emerged carrying a single head of “North Korean-style cabbage kimchi” made by the North Korean workers in the factory, a place that I had not been permitted to enter. I was only able to taste their kimchi, but inside they were making clothes for sale in South Korea. At the same time, South Korean researchers offer a quite different diagnosis to the businessmen working there on the ground.

“The monthly wages of North Korean workers are about 1900-2000 RMB, comparatively cheaper than the 2000-2500 RMB of local Chinese workers there in the northeast. However, because they must also be provided with housing, canteens and such in addition to monthly wages, for the firms the cost savings are actually not all that great.” (“Fundamental change in DPRK-China economic cooperation in the era of China’s ‘new normal,’” Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, September 2, 2015)

Is that really so, though? I have my doubts. Do businesspeople invest in projects that leave no profit behind? How are we to explain the fact that they have been hiring North Korean workers continuously in the period since 2010? If the cost savings are not so great, why are the numbers rising annually? Dandong residents do not speak of a lack of Chinese workers:

“The wages of North Korean workers are rising nowadays; they are up around 300-400 USD. If you add in all the other costs (food and lodging, etc.), the total is something like 80% of the cost of employing each Chinese worker. And unlike Chinese workers, one can be certain of employee numbers. The insurances needed for Chinese workers are also reduced. And [North Korean workers] are dexterous, which makes for efficiency, and they are guaranteed to work overtime. Economically speaking, they are at least 1.5 to 1.7 times more productive than Chinese workers.”

South Korean businesspeople who know of these advantages, or Chinese businesspeople with close links to South Korea, are hiring North Korean workers to produce things for export like clothes, marine products and electronics. The novel and the reality are very different, and so is the assessment of South Korean researchers on the one hand and, on the other, people actually doing business on the ground.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex is not the only thing keeping inter-Korean exchanges alive. A different picture is appearing in Dandong, one wholly separate from the preconceived notions found in South Korean society. If the protagonist in <Jeonggeulmalli> had not listened to all the rumors regarding North Korean workers and had gone to Dandong for himself, would there not be something more added to the novel? In my next article, I will deal with the real meaning of the North Korean workers in Dandong.

Source: Kang Ju-won, “‘Made in China’? Actually, a North Korean…” [Kang Ju-won’s ‘Reading the Borderland’] Dandong, another Kaesong Industrial Complex” [“‘메이드 인 차이나’? 사실은 북한 사람이…” [강주원의 ‘국경 읽기’] 단둥, 또 하나의 개성 공단], Pressian, October 19, 2015. Translation by Christopher Green.

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1. For more on this matter and much, much more, see incumbent Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung’s graphic novel, “Manhwa Kim Jong-un [만화 김정은; lit. “Cartoon Kim Jong-un”],” Zeitgeist Publishing House, 2011: 47-53.
2. Jo is the best-selling author of the historical trilogy Taebaek Mountain Range [태백산맥; 1988, 1989, 1991] and Han River [한강; 2003].
3. The 5.24 Measures (or May 24 Measures), a package of economic sanctions against North Korea, were implemented in 2010 by the Lee Myung-bak administration in response to the March 26 sinking of a South Korean naval corvette, the ROKS Cheonan, by a North Korean torpedo off the west coast of the Korean peninsula. The measures were intended to halt all economic activity between the Koreas, except for operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
4. In South Korea a more common expression would be “Haneulmani anda” [한늘만이 안다] or “only God knows,” implying that nobody does.

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