food / travel

The Hard Labor Of North Korean Workers In China

Recent UN sanctions are trying to limit the flow of money North Korea generates by sending workers abroad, especially to China.

A North Korean waitress in Dandong, China
A North Korean waitress in Dandong, China
Brice Pedroletti

DANDONG — In their pink and blue joseon-ots (traditional clothes), the North Korean waitresses of the New Sun Island Restaurant in Dandong, the large Chinese border city with North Korea, casually take orders in between tasks.

There are dozens of girls working in this establishment, situated on the promenade along the Yalu River. The area feeds a flow of foreign exchange that recent UN sanctions are now trying to tackle with rules that bar member states from issuing permits to new workers without special authorization, and from renewing those that already exist.

For now, the new rules seem to be of little concern to the people working in these restaurants in almost every city in northeast China. "We're not working, we're studying Chinese. It's like an exchange program," one of these waitresses in Dandong insists. Clearly, she's dealt with this question before.

The woman goes by the Chinese name Feng and has been in Dandong for seven months. She comes from Pyongyang, where she was studying at university. Like her friends, she says she's teaching herself Chinese by speaking with clients, or by reading a textbook when business is slow.

There are thousands of young women working like this in China, in restaurants like Sun Island, sometimes owned by Chinese people. The establishments don't pay the workers directly. Instead, they pay a North Korean trading company. Others are managed directly by North Korean state groups, such as the restaurant chain Pyongyang.

In the Pyongyang restaurant in Shenyang, a northeastern Chinese megalopolis, young women serve meals and give musical performances for customers, before cleaning up. "We're not making money. We're working for our country so that everything is free at home — health care, education," one of the workers explains.

In the main room of the restaurant, now empty of clients, the television shows Kim Jong-un in a stadium, assailed by crying fifty-somethings. Then a news announcer begins a warlike speech. One of the waitresses clicks the TV remote, and the screen suddenly displays noisy car commercials. "We aren't allowed to put on Chinese television in the restaurant," the young woman says with an embarrassed smile.

Roaming source of revenue

Between 20,000 and 30,000 North Koreans work in China in restaurants, but also in textile or electronics factories. They're supervised and only go out in groups. Their families are, in general, members of the army or the administration. In April 2016, the entire North Korean staff — 30 people — in a restaurant in Ningbo, China, crossed into a third country before requesting asylum in South Korea, one of the rare documented cases of collective defection.

The income from the labor of some 90,000 North Koreans working abroad generates, according to estimates from the South Korean researcher Go Myong-hyun of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, between $100-200 million (about 170 million euros) in revenue per year for the North Korean regime. Not all of those workers go to China. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Russia in June of contributing to forced labor by authorizing a workforce for which employers directly pay North Korean entities linked to the regime.

The recruitment of North Koreans is important in northeastern Chinese provinces, bordering North Korea, that lack cheap labor. Several years ago, as Beijing stepped up its economic partnership programs with Pyongyang, these provinces launched a campaign to actively recruit a large number of North Koreans. But the mixed economic zones that China proposed to North Korea were halted after the execution, in late 2013, of Jang Song-thaek, an uncle of North Korea's young leader. Jang Song-thaek made the mistake, it appears, of being just a little too pro-Beijing.

"Since China is heavily populated, it limits its unqualified foreign labor force. But private North Korean businesses have long managed to recruit North Koreans, unbeknownst to the central government, because the costs of doing so are so low," explains researcher Lu Chao, a specialist on the Korean peninsula at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, in Shenyang. "Certain businesses have no doubt continued this practice under various pretexts."

The sanctions run the risk, however, of limiting the number of qualified workers. In Dandong, a gallery that specializes in North Korean paintings is already feeling the effects. The DPRK Art Gallery displays paintings done by North Korean artists-in-residence: bucolic countrysides, waves crashing on rocks, young women posed in front of a piano. The price? Between 2,000 and 5,000 euros ($2,350-5,877), depending on the painter's "status."

The gallery employed eight painters for months-long stays, then six, and finally only two. "These will be the last," says Meng Chenxu, the young curator. "Even before they weren't that motivated to come here because the money from their sales goes to their government." From here on out, the gallery will send them brushes, paints and canvases. And will then resell their paintings. Without fear of being affected by the sanctions.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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