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N. Korean laborers begin flowing back into China after Trump-Kim summit

Laborers from North Korea wait for a car to come meet them outside of a customs facility in the city of Dandong in China's northeastern Liaoning province, on May 11, 2018. (Photo courtesy of the Dandong City Government)

SHANGHAI/DANDONG, China -- In the northeastern Chinese provinces of Jilin and Liaoning that border North Korea, along with the rapid warming of relations between the two neighbors, residents on both sides are starting to anticipate a loosening of sanctions after the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

"As it's getting warmer, the number of laborers crossing the border from North Korea to work in the industrial parks here has clearly increased," said a source related to trade between the two countries in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture of Jilin province on June 13.

The dispatch of North Korean laborers abroad is an important means for acquiring foreign currency. In the past, North Korean workers are said to have lived as a group in industrial areas, making items such as clothing and shoes in factories. Under the United Nations Security Council sanctions enacted last summer, however, the acceptance of new workers from the North was banned, and the number of laborers overall decreased. However, since March, with the meeting of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un and the latter's two visits to China in March and May, along with other developments in the region, the situation is changing.

In mid-May, around 10 women gathered in front of a customs facility in the middle of Dandong, in China's Liaoning province, the center of economic exchange across the border. Each woman was wearing a red badge on her chest that featured portraits of North Korea's leaders. The women and others set their luggage down on the street, and appeared to be waiting for someone. One after the other, they filed into cars that came to meet them.

"Those are probably foreign workers from North Korea," a local Dandong resident commented. "From last year up until the beginning of this year, there was a noticeable decrease in their number, but lately I have started to see them around again."

The Chinese government maintains that it is "completely fulfilling the UN council's decision," and has stopped issuing working visas, but North Korean laborers are using the short-term "border crossing certificates" to enter China, and appear to then be hired by small- to medium-sized Chinese enterprises. The area already had a high latent demand for the North Korean laborers, who work hard for low wages, and with the improved political relationship between the two governments, Chinese companies' resistance toward hiring North Korean workers seems to be weakening.

Additionally, on the North Korean side of the Tumen River, which runs along the border, the number of visitors to regions where Chinese companies have developed sightseeing opportunities is also on an upward trend. It is even said that the number of South Koreans who come to Jilin province's North Korean restaurants is also on the rise.

(Japanese original by Akira Kudo, Shanghai Bureau, and Keisuke Kawazu, China General Bureau)

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