A group of 20 North Korean textile workers who were dispatched to Shanghai to earn foreign currency for the government have disappeared, and Pyongyang authorities suspect they are now on the run as refugees, sources in China told RFA.
“In mid-February, an entire group of North Korean women working at a clothing company in Shanghai disappeared when they were supposed to be in quarantine,” a source who lives in Dalian, in China’s northeast, told RFA’s Korean Service March 19.
“The 20 female workers … and their manager were gone, and the owner of the Chinese company that hired them called the North Korean manager, but he did not answer the phone, so [the owner] went to the dormitory to find that they had all disappeared,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Cash-strapped North Korea sends workers to China and Russia to earn foreign currency for the ruling party.
While many North Koreans flee their country by crossing the Yalu River border into China, escape by the workers dispatched to the country is rare–because the government sends only its most loyal citizens abroad and monitors them closely.
Pyongyang has also been known to punish the family members of escapees, referring to them as “defectors.”
The source said that the company owner immediately reported the disappearance of the 20 women to the North Korean consulate in Beijing.
“The consulate has requested cooperation from the Chinese police and is trying to track them, mainly by monitoring railway stations heading towards the border,” he said.
Though the source did not specify which border, refugees typically try to escape China by traveling to Southeast Asia.
Although the Chinese government has pledged to adhere to the U.N. convention that forbids the return of refugees to their home countries if doing so would endanger their lives or freedom, Beijing claims it must send North Koreans found to be illegally within Chinese territory back home under two bilateral border and immigration pacts with Pyongyang.
“The workers and the manager have not been found for a month since they went missing. North Korean authorities believed there is a high possibility that the group defected,” the source said. “The North Korean consulate is under a state of emergency to find if they have already escaped and are in Southeast Asia or already entered South Korea.”
Another source, from Dandong, across the Yalu River from the North Korean city of Sinuiju, told RFA that Shanghai is so large that it would be hard to find the missing workers if they were still there. The city has a population of around 26 million people.
“It is so large and crowded it would be easy to hide there,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“But if they were to leave by train or bus, they would need to show ID to buy a ticket. It therefore seems this is a planned escape led by a guide, since the manager and the workers have not been caught.”
An official from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification on Tuesday told reporters that there is “nothing to confirm” regarding the 20 North Korean women and their manager after the Korean version of RFA’s report was published.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told RFA on Tuesday that it would be unable to confirm workers’ flight even if it knew the report was true.
There are an estimated 20,000 to 80,000 North Koreans working in China, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Person’s Report.
North Korean labor exports were supposed to have stopped when United Nations nuclear sanctions froze the issuance of work visas and mandated the repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019.
But Pyongyang sometimes dispatches workers to China and Russia on short-term student or visitor visas to get around sanctions.
The companies employing the North Koreans pay much higher salaries than what they could earn in their home country. The government, however, collect the lion’s share, leaving the workers with only a fraction of their wages.
Translated by Claire Lee and Leejin Jun. Written in English be Eugene Whong.