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N Korea at crossroads

Sanctions on North Korean migrant workers undermined by 'interns'

Pyongyang exploits alternative visa programs while China looks the other way

A performer sings at a North Korean-themed restaurant in Shenyang, China. North Korean laborers can skirt UN sanctions by applying for entertainment visas. (Photo by Tsukasa Hadano)

DALIAN, China -- Nations have until the end of December to expel migrant workers from North Korea, as dictated by United Nations sanctions, but China has essentially carved out a loophole by granting reams of visas normally reserved for interns or entertainers.

In Dandong, a city on China's side of the Yalu River, one trading house has decided to launch a staffing business that employs North Korean migrants. So far, an apparel maker and a seafood company have requested about 1,000 workers in total, the trader's chief said in late October.

These dealings run counter to UN Security Council sanctions mandating that every country repatriate North Korean workers by year-end. The aim is to cut off the hermit state from much-needed foreign currency to fund nuclear-weapon development.

But the sanctions mainly target work visas. "If [North Koreans] have visas for interns, entertainers or technicians, they can enter the country the next year and afterwards," said an expert in China well-versed in the border problem.

North Korea has exploited such exemptions to the furthest extent possible. Pyongyang has especially taken advantage of China's visa program for technical interns. In fact, an entire staffing industry dependent on those visas has reportedly sprung up.

The technical visas expire in one month, but North Korean workers are simply sent back home to reapply, sources familiar with the practice say. To avoid detection, workers are divided into groups that are sent to clients on disparate dates, according to an executive at a staffing agency.

Dozens of staffing agencies in Dandong alone are believed to have North Koreans on their roster. These workers are sent across China's northeast, including cities like Dandong, Shenyang and Dalian, largely to textile and seafood-processing plants.

About 2,000 North Korean women without work visas were recently sent to factories in Jilin Province, according to Daily NK, a website specializing in North Korea-related news.

North Korean restaurants -- which give the rogue regime much-needed access to foreign currency -- also continue to operate across China with help from these North Korean laborers.

Chinese customers have been flocking to such eateries in Shenyang and Dandong. A Dalian restaurant welcomed a new team of North Korean employees in mid-October after the old cadre returned home a month earlier.

"The workers have an entertainment visa and can stay for five years," said one person at the Dalian restaurant.

North Korea earns $500 million a year from the roughly 100,000 workers it sends abroad, according to the U.S. State Department. Pyongyang "doesn't have the option" of losing this valuable income stream, a South Korean government source said.

There is speculation that China is deliberately turning a blind eye to North Korea's moves so that it can use the situation as a diplomatic card. According to that view, Beijing is leaving itself room to crank up pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear program as part of its negotiations with Washington.

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