“Hire a North Korean”: Chinese Economic Magazine

By | May 07, 2012 | No Comments

Not long ago in Foreign Policy, Marcus Noland laid into the notion of economic transparency with regard to North Korea.  Where are the facts?  And just what are the data points?  Fortunately, when looking at Chinese side of the equation, we are somewhat less empty-handed, and our frustration is often matched by relative satisfaction at what one might term China’s “abundantly sporadic” approach to releasing data about Sino-North Korean economic intercourse. 

There is still a lot we may not know cross-provincial trade flows — what is Jilin’s proportion of trade with North Korea vs. that of Liaoning, for instance? and how marginalized is Yanji, really?  Not to mention questions like “did the Chinese really fake a corruption scandal on their high-speed railway to Hunchun on the day before Li Keqiang arrived in Pyongyang”? and why was the North Korean media way, way more transparent than Xinhua when the head of Huadian Power visited Pyongyang last October?  But in sum, the Chinese press nevertheless puts out a steady stream of stories about North Korea’s economic situation which are worth translating and analyzing, as we have done in the past here

Recently, a scintillating piece by Chris Green of the DailyNK, in combination this note by Forbes and no small amount of digging by Stephan Haggard at the University of California-San Diego, got us thinking about the question of North Korean workers in China.  The following piece is a full translation of the Chinese article which got this recent discussion started.  Chen Yong, the intrepid author, recently put out a new piece on April 20, in English, about problems encountered when Chinese businessmen get shafted by North Korean debtors. — Adam Cathcart, Chief Editor

Translator’s Note: The magazine’s own English translation of the article has left out a great deal of the original content, including the most controversial aspects of the piece: the idea of a large-scale and systematic Chinese intake of North Korean laborers in the Yalu River valley.

Although it was heavily sanitized, the English version of the article appears to have been removed from the magazine’s webpage. No fear, a copy was archived by SinoNK and can be accessed as pdf., here. [Update — The magazine’s own English translation is now accessible again, here, via Stephan Haggard’s “Special Border Edition” Witness to Transformation website.]

All of the material has been reworked from the original Chinese (which is still accessible) for clarity and a more direct conveyance of the meaning into English. Content which was cut or not included from the magazine’s own translation is underlined or otherwise clearly marked. As can be seen, there is quite a bit of material that was left out.

Chen Yong [陈勇], “Hire a North Korean Worker [雇个朝鲜工人],” Economic Observer [经济观察网], April 23, 2012. Translated by Adam Cathcart for SinoNK.com.

If Chen Fu did not open his mouth, you would not have the slightest possibility of finding out that he is North Korean. Because of malnutrition, the 26-year-old looks like he is 40.

In order to be able to eat his fill, he came to China, and is currently working in Dandong at a restaurant. From 10:00 a.m. until midnight, he is the most diligent worker at the restaurant. His job at the hotel includes two meals per day, and it also gives him the use of a bed with a metal frame.

Every month, he receives a salary of 1200 yuan.

Chen Fu is the name which he took after he came to China.[1] It was given to him by Old Xu in order to to help him take him to China, in order to “avoid unnecessary trouble.”[2] In the eyes of the local government,[3] Chen Fu is a foreign national working in China out of economic necessity,[4] but in the eyes of Dandong locals, he is more of a “North Korean defector” (a person who has escaped from North Korea).[5]

Old Xu is Chen Fu’s boss [laoban], a big Northeastern dude[6] of 1.83 meters, who, when he speaks, does so in a tone whose every iota marks him as a shrewd businessman.[7] His hotel staff come from every corner of the world,[8] but most of them are still local Northeasterners.  Although the workers are constantly engaged in training and drill, the quality of service has not improved.[9] A few of the old staff who have worked there for long time – let’s call them “burnouts”[10] —  give Old Xu headaches.

When Chen Fu arrived, it made Old Xu more satisfied than ever: “He can eat bitterness while working hard; you can ask him to do whatever, and he doesn’t complain.” Workers like Chen Fu are hard to find, says Old Xu, because, more importantly, he has the discretion to listen when spoken to.[11]

The owner of one local trading company in Dandong who requested to remain anonymous said that “foreign workers” have been in the area for a long time, and are an extremely common site in Chinese cities bordering North KoreaThese people are especially appropriate in workshops making shoes, [manufacturing] clothes, cleaning circuit boards, [building of] hotels and other trades. The agencies that connect the workers with firms and factories and their businesses have been booming.[12]

[The following whole section was omitted from the original translation.]

Undertaking a “North Korean Labor” Plan [承接鲜劳动力规划]

A large number of “foreign-national workers” had already flowed in, giving sudden inspiration to the main political figures in this city.[13] Because China and North Korea are so proximate, this city has continually hoped to grasp [the power] of border trade as a driver for development of relevant industries. But owing to funding and other policy bottlenecks,[14] the city’s development has continually lagged behind.

One official at the Dandong City Bureau for Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation [丹东市外经贸局] believes that if in the future, the Yalu River economic zone could converge with the united Changjitu open development pilot zone and Liaoning coastal economic zone, it could stimulate the full range of urban development of the Yalu River region.

All Roads Lead to Dandong — Or the New Dagushan Economic Development Zone, in Purple | Image courtesy Dagushan Economic Zone

One source close to the Dandong Development and Reform Committee[15] revealed that Dandong is currently developing a plan concerning the contracting [承接] of  “North Korean labor.”[16] He [the source, a male] said that high labor costs in China’s central and western provinces in labor-intensive enterprises are commonly complained about as unbearable, and, if Dandong is to attract such enterprises, it should reduce labor costs for processing, thus solving the problem of industrial development in Dandong.[17]

“North Korea’s labor cost is low, and [its workers are] skilled; this can fully meet the requirements of [Chinese] businesses.” The above source said that it was fully possible that Dandong could create a processing city for the eastern side of the Chinese Northeast, or attract industries from Eastern China.

But the source believes that Dandong’s natural geographic advantages as eastern Dongbei’s outlet to the sea, coupled with its long history of cross-border trade, means there is no other place as advantageous. “There are thirteen [Chinese] cities along the banks of the Yalu River basin. If these thirteen cities all work together, this [region] can become the largest gathering point for North Korean labor [outside of the DPRK], and from this can spring the overall opening of the northeastern border areas. These thirteen cities are all in the Yalu River basin, and all have done trade with North Korea. If they can approach [the proposition] with a united front, why shouldn’t they work together [to make a breakthrough]? ”

However, in the end, this person thrice stressed that it was just an idea.

[End omission.]

The best workers [最好的工人]

Although North Korea has continually been trying to export its labor to China, due to various factors, success stories involving employment of North Korean workers in Chinese border cities are few.[18]

In accordance with the 1996 national law “Regulations on the Management of Foreign Workers in Chinese Industries,[19] foreign nationals who come to China to work must obtain a work visa.  Preference for the granting of such visas is granted to experts, seamen, employees of multinational corporations, and other specializations.

However, the North Korean administration of entry and exit for its citizens is extremely strict.  North Korean people who work abroad must work for government-funded enterprises or government work units [danwei] (examples being North Korean logging operations on Russian territory or North Korean-owned hotels inside of China).  Inside of North Korea, [government] work units distribute important [resources], but, after leaving the country is only allowed in designated regional activities, generally non-DPRK-funded enterprises under normal circumstances cannot recommend or hire out Korean labor.  Apart from this, in both North Korea and China is it is difficult to apply for a visa to go to the other country, and because of this, some of the workers from North Korea can only start working in a Chinese enterprise after obtaining a visa for the purposes of study or travel.

One vice president at a Dandong import-export firm introduced [the idea that], since the June 15, 2000 ROK-DPRK summit included discussion of economic and trade cooperation, inter-Korean relations had markedly improved, and, thanks to this, textile industries in Pyongyang, Kaesong, and other North Korean cities increased by large numbers.

But after the appearance of the “Cheonan” ship [attack] and Yeonpyeong Island incident, inter-Korean trade was completely interrupted, and because of this there was a substantial increase in the number of North Korean workers who got laid off. Against this background, North Korea’s garment industries are actively trying to send textile workers to China, and the North Korean government tacitly acquiesces in this step [并且朝鲜政府也对此予以 了默许].

“You only [need to pay them] 1,300 yuan to 1,500 yuan a month, there’s no need to consider anything else,” said the Dandong trader. [Because North Korean textile laborers are cost-effective, nimble [廉价、手脚麻利], and have a good attitude, some coastal cities in garment enterprises really desire [很是青睐] North Korean labor. In Hunchun, Tumen and a few other cities, enterprises are also recruiting North Korean workers, but the number of North Korean workers actually recruited within China’s borders is insufficient [to meet their demand].

Li Qiming, the boss of a Dandong architecture company who has been dealing with North Korean workers for a long time said that [a] foremost [consideration] in employing North Korean workers was that he can slash the wage bill by a third if he hires North Korean workers on 100 yuan a day.

North Korean workers operate with very high efficiency; when shaping steel reinforcement beams [打钢筋] in villas [一栋别墅], the work that takes a day for 4-6 Chinese people to complete can be finished in one day by 2 North Korean workers. “In their country, people study seriously; they know how to do hard work,” says Li Qiming, going further to say that for North Korean workers, the pattern of work in foreign countries is not so different from within the DPRK: In both cases, [North Korean workers] have particularly organized discipline, they don’t ask for extra pay for overtime, and if things aren’t finished, they don’t leave.[20] The most important thing is that their work is solid and they don’t engage in bargaining.

At Li Qiming’s construction site, only a very gutsy North Korean worker could be caught saying two sentences to Li Qiming. However only occasionally, and only on festival days or when having drunk too much liquor, everybody communicates in a very carefree way. Other than that, the rest are unknown [其余都是默默无闻].

Li Qiming says: “After they get off work, it’s not at all clear [to me] what they eat or how they have fun; where we each live is separated by a wall.” But [he does know] that faced with a choice between money or food, they prefer the food [”但相比钱而言,他们更喜欢食物].

Li Qiming said that on festival days when generosity is expected, he gives the Chinese workers cash, and gives the North Koreans a portion of cash plus 100 kg of pork, beef, vegetables, fruits and other foodstuffs.  “I am afraid that no one knows the exact number of how many North Korean worders [there are in China],” says Qi, explaining that “North Koreans, ethnic Koreans, South Koreans are all living all over China, and are involved in a huge range of activities.” One expert who researches Korean Peninsula issues says that “Given the sensitivity of this area, it is excusable not to have this statistic [of how many Koreans are working in China “有关方面对这一数字的敏感也情有可原”].


[1] The name chosen for him, Fu [福], means rich or abundant. This is perhaps ironic, like naming a war refugee “Victor.”

[2] [避免些不必要的麻烦], I put it this phrase in quotes because it encapsulates so much about attitudes toward regulation that allow such a situation to occur – China isn’t Germany, in other words.

[3] I.e., the Dandong City Government, located now across from that big white elephant of a bridge to North Korea.

[4] I use this phrase to differentiate from more direct translation “for economic reasons” which has the feeling of trade or big-scale trade.

[5] The preceding sentence has been completely omitted from official translation, again revealing that in China, basic information being spread now about defectors such that there is still a need to describe basic vocabulary for Chinese readers. [而在丹东当地人眼中,他更像是一名“脱北者”(从朝鲜逃出来的人).

[6] 东北大汉

[7] high praise!

[8] literally, “from the five lakes and four seas”五湖四海

[9] Chinese employee group morale building culture is not entirely unlike that of the DPRK.

[10] lit. “deep-fried donuts”

[11] This is a key difference in the translation = The boss is mostly just satisfied, not completely bragging that he controls this weak-willed person. “吃苦耐劳,让干啥干啥,而且没有抱怨”, 老徐说,这样的工人难找,更重要的是还便宜听话 [bianyi tianghua]。The magazine’s original English translation adds a tone that I think is unnecessarily degrading: “He does whatever he’s told and doesn’t complain,” said Chen’s boss, adding that the North Korean is also cheap and obedient.” Makes for a great headline, but not quite in the spirit of the quote. 

[12] “Booming” = literally, “red fire” 红火, prosperous.

[13] I.e., Dai Yulin and Dandong city government officials.  See Adam Cathcart, “Notes on the Dandong City Leadership,” SinoNK.com, December 25, 2011.

[14] 资金和其他政策瓶颈问题; curious phrase that indicates more is behind it

[15] 丹东市发改委; sounds like the unit has an anti-corruption responsibility as well

[16] Note the language, somewhat general, couched in vague terms; the “guanyu.”

[17] There has been a muted discussion about the return of heavy industry to the Northeast, after a lot of discussion that was ultimately fruitless about “green development” in places like Dalian and Shenyang.

[18] Original: “There are limits to the number of North Korean workers who can work in China.” This interpretation omits the fact that DPRK has made efforts to export, but that China resisted due to legal structure which DPRK wishes to avoid; an interesting friction that makes exporting labor to Russia easier it seems.

[19] 《外国人在中国就业管理规定》

[20] Interesting point made here about inside-outside North Korea. It works contrary to our assumption is that outside North Korea primarily represents political “freedom” to refugee North Koreans or part-time migrant laborers, but it does not appear to be this way. There appears to have been a normalization of the “I’m going home with a wad of cash and no changes in my political beliefs” mentality.

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