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Signs of rare unrest among North Korean workers in China, researchers say

SEOUL - South Korea's intelligence agency says poor conditions for North Koreans working overseas have led to "incidents and accidents", while researchers report rare protests and unrest in China among workers from a North Korean military-linked trading company.

Fed up with unpaid wages and lingering pandemic lockdowns, as many as 3,000 North Korean workers in China staged protests last month, according to two South Korean government-affiliated researchers, including a former North Korean diplomat.

Reuters could not independently confirm the protests.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said they were "not aware" of the issue when asked about it at a daily briefing Thursday (Feb 8). The North Korean embassy in Beijing and its consular office in the Chinese border city of Dandong did not respond to calls from Reuters seeking comment.

Large-scale protests by North Koreans are virtually unheard of, and the researchers said it suggests these labourers are caught in a disagreement over their fate: China wants to send them home to comply with UN resolutions and avoid defections, but North Korea wants to maintain the number of labourers there.

Pyongyang exerts tight control over its overseas workers, including seizing as much as 90 per cent of their wages for government funding, according to the 2023 US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, which said they often face "conditions amounting to forced labour".

For some workers, wages are withheld until they return to North Korea, increasing their vulnerability to coercion and exploitation by authorities, the report said.

Recent moves appear to have worsened conditions, according to the researchers.

Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at a South Korean government-run