North Korea keeps receiving help from its most generous ally. According to a Los Angeles Times article this morning, China has agreed to hire a large number of North Korean guest workers. The deal, which has not been made public by either country, would allow 40,000 “seamstresses, technicians, mechanics, construction workers and miners” to work legally in the Chinese Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture (a region adjacent to the Northeast China-Korea border) on industrial training visas. According to Kim So-yeol, a reporter with NK Daily, the number may rise to around 120,000 workers by the end of this year. Although large numbers of unskilled North Korean workers have long sought economic opportunities in China, the article notes that such a large number of legal migrant workers is “unprecedented,” as Beijing does not typically issue visas for “unskilled and semi-skilled workers.”
The benefits here for North Korea are clear. The country is facing extreme economic issues, which may only be worsened as they continue to face one of the worst droughts in recent Korean history. With a “teetering regime with little more to export than the drudgery of a desperately poor population,” the opportunity to raise much needed money is a no-brainer for the DPRK. The article notes that most of the money (around 80% or more) will likely bypass the workers and go straight into the pockets of the North Korean regime.
The rationale from China’s perspective is more complicated. Beijing has made support for North Korea a high priority: Experts estimate that since the mid-1980s (when North Korea’s economy began its sharp decline) China has provided an excess of $7 billion in handouts to the North. One reason for such spending, according to analysts, is that the collapse of the DPRK would be perceived as a blow to China’s dominance in the region, as it could open up the possibility of a unified Korean peninsula with strong ties to the U.S. The labor deal would also provide China with a number of ideal, albeit unskilled, North Korean workers. Park Hyeong-jung, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, notes that “[t]here are no better employees than North Koreans: They are obedient, efficient and cheap.”
On the other hand, as China continues to face mounting criticisms for its commitment to international humanitarian issues, such a deal with North Korea could be viewed as “violating the spirit, if not the letter,” of recent U.N. sanctions against the North for its determined pursuit of nuclear weapons and continued military development. The deal could raise national tensions within China as well, as a recent incident in which North Korean sailors hijacked three Chinese fishing boats infuriated many Chinese who believe their government is overly tolerant of DPRK recklessness. Moreover, according to the article, the deal will provide labor opportunities in a region that suffers “no labor shortages,” which may only escalate Chinese resentment of North Koreans. According to Zhang Lianggui, a North Korea expert at the Central Party School in Beijing, the North Korean laborers “will be competing directly with local youths for job opportunities.”
While North Korea must be pleased to receive the much-needed income, the overall success and repercussions of this deal remain to be seen.