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Could reports of a North Korean workers’ riot in China ‘pose threats’ to the regime?

South Korea’s spy agency on Tuesday reported multiple incidents of “various accidents” involving North Korean workers abroad, citing “poor working conditions”. “We’re closely following this situation,” a spokesman for the National Intelligence Service told This Week in Asia without elaborating.

Cho Han-bum, a senior analyst at South Korea’s Institute of National Unification, said the riots erupted around January 11 at a garment factory in China’s Jilin province, where some 2,500 North Koreans are hired by the Jonsung trading firm operated by the North’s defence ministry.

“A North Korean manager was killed, and three other executives were seriously injured,” Cho told This Week in Asia on Tuesday.

Their owed wages totalled an estimated US$10 million, according to Cho. “When they found out their wages were gone, they just exploded,” he said of the apparent riots.


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North Koreans hired for jobs in China usually work for three years, earning some US$200 monthly. When they return home, the sums would be enough for them to buy a modest house in the suburbs of Pyongyang, Cho said.

But many of the workers have been held back in China for up to seven years because of the North’s pandemic lockdowns. Only selected workers were allowed to return, leaving most of the workers in limbo in China.

Alarmed by the rare upheaval, North Korean authorities are said to have quickly dispatched a local consul general to restore order, borrowing several months’ worth of back wages from another trading company to pay off the rioters.

But Cho warned the regime faced the threat of similar riots taking place elsewhere as other North Korean-run factories also owed salaries.