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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Radio Free Asia

North Korean Factory Hunts Down Workers Who Fled for Higher-Paying Fisheries Jobs

2021-05-17 -- A machinery factory in a North Korean border city has sent agents to track down workers who abandoned their government-assigned jobs when coronavirus idled their plant and headed to the coast to harvest seafood for higher wages, sources in the country told RFA.

The workers fled the Ragwon Machine Complex – a state-of-the-art maker of drills, excavators and pumps in the city of Sinuiju – to work on boats or at aquaculture farms on the Yellow Sea, where picking clams and catching crabs for export to China pays better than state factory jobs.

Even at the showcase factory in Sinuiju, a major city on North Korea's Yalu River border with China, workers needed side jobs to because paltry government salaries are not enough to feed families.

"Hundreds of workers rushed away to another region of the country without getting factory approval, saying they had to earn money for food," a resident of Uiju county in North Pyongan province's told RFA's Korean Service last week.

"The reason why they are looking for work far away from here is because a limited amount of maritime trade with China has resumed since April, and they are hiring a lot of daily workers for the foreign-currency-earning clam and flower crab farms on the West Sea," said the source, using the Korean term for the Yellow Sea.

The complex, estimated to have 4,000-5,000 workers, appeared willing to look the other way when hungry workers drifted off last year when production was nearly idled for lack of raw materials brought on by international nuclear sanctions and the closure of Sino-North Korean border during the coronavirus pandemic.

But now that it plans to restart operations with an easing of border closures, workers are ignoring calls to return because they can't afford to go back to their government-salaried jobs, sources told RFA.

According to the Uiju resident, the factory's management has organized a task force to search the West Sea aquacultural sites for its missing workers.

"Only some of the workers were caught and forced to come back to work at the factory, but they couldn't find the rest. It's not going to be easy to find them either, because they can hide their identities while they go make money at sea," said the source.

Another source, a Sinuiju resident, told RFA that the Ragwon machinery complex is an example of the regime's purported shift toward tech since 2011, when Kim Jong Un came to power.

"They say the factory has computers controlling a lot of the manufacturing process, which workers complete using heavy equipment and machine tools, but the surrounding Ragwon-dong is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Sinuiju -- it's all propaganda," said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

"It looks good from the outside, but because of sanctions against North Korea and the pandemic, steel imports aren't coming in and factory operation has stopped. They cannot even give food rations to their workers," the second source said.

The second source said that some of the families of the men who work at the factory live in squalor.

"Their wives make tofu to sell at the local marketplace and the family will only eat the leftover pulp. They are struggling to make ends meet right now," the second source said.

"But since some maritime trade has resumed, the trading companies and foreign-currency-earning seafood industries are hiring men to man fish with nets and fix and maintain boats," the second source said.

North Korean exports of seafood, which were banned in 2017 by U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at cutting funds for Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, used to earn the country an estimated US$300 million a year.

The factory workers have no choice but to abandon their posts for the opportunities at sea, even in the face the harsh punishment of having their membership in the ruling Korean Workers' Party revoked.

Membership in the ruling Korean Workers' Party is seen as a status symbol that can also be a gateway to better housing, employment, education and food in the impoverished country.

"However, workers are preparing for punishment and continue trying to make money, saying that it is far more terrifying to starve than to be forced to leave the party."

Food shortages are affecting labor in many different industries all over the country. RFA reported earlier this month that hungry construction workers in Pyongyang had begun robbing and murdering residents to try to find money to buy food.

U.N Special Rapporteur on North Korean Human Rights Tomás Ojea Quintana warned in a report in March that the closure of the Sino-Korean border and restrictions on the movement of people could bring on a "serious food crisis."

"Deaths by starvation have been reported, as has an increase in the number of children and elderly people who have resorted to begging as families are unable to support them," said the report.

RFA reported earlier this month that North Korean authorities were warning residents to prepare for economic difficulties as bad as the 1994-1998 famine which killed millions, as much as 10 percent of the population by some estimates.

Kim Jong Un was quoted in state media in April as saying the country faced grim challenges.

"Improving the people's living standards ... even in the worst-ever situation in which we have to overcome unprecedentedly numerous challenges depends on the role played by the cells, the grassroots organizations of the party," Kim said during an opening speech at a meeting of cell secretaries of the ruling Workers' Party.

Reported by RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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