Exploration of Mongolia in search of traces of North Korean workers
A week ago, I went on a trip to Mongolia. The country was more dynamic than ever, as if the pandemic was already well over. The impetus for this particular trip was the research by Dr. Yeosang Yoon and his team on the life and human rights situation of North Korean overseas workers, which was published by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) in 2016. Between the sanctions against North Korea and the pandemic, I naturally wanted to go into the field and investigate the situation of North Korean workers sent to Mongolia. In the end I found that due to punishments there were no North Korean workers officially staying in Mongolia.
The North Korean workforce in Mongolia can be broadly divided into three types. First, there are those who work and manage North Korean restaurants, much like those operated in China, Russia, and parts of Southeast Asia. Second, there are workers sent to construction projects in urban areas, such as Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. Third, there are the workers sent to cashmere factories, one of Mongolia’s key industries.
As for North Korean restaurants in Mongolia, there were once three successful restaurants operating in Mongolia. central Ulaanbaatar under the names “Pyongyang Baekhwagwan”, “Pyongyang Restaurant” and “Pyongyang Koryo Folk Restaurant”. I checked that none of these three restaurants were working. At “Pyongyang Baekhwagwan”, the restaurant sign still displayed an “under construction” notice and new stores had moved into the locations of the other two restaurants. According to a source in Mongolia, the North Korean embassy in Mongolia had “Pyongyang Baekhwagwan”, which meant that it was not completely closed; on the contrary, it had temporarily suspended its operations. The source also told me that the restaurant sign remained on and that embassy officials came regularly to inspect the stores.
Meanwhile, construction workers are scarce in Mongolia, at least officially. In Russia, crowded flights and trains prevented some workers from returning to North Korea after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Even now, some workers are tacitly employed on home improvement projects and other small-scale construction projects. However, North Korea had already officially withdrawn workers from the country before the UN deadline of December 22, 2019. Since then, COVID-19 has made it difficult for North Korea to send large numbers of workers to the country.
North Korea’s predominantly female workforce in Mongolia’s cashmere factories also disappeared. During my trip, I visited a cashmere factory that once employed about eight hundred North Korean workers. Factory officials there told me they no longer employ North Korean workers. I found that the situation in local hospitals was much the same. The North Korean doctors, who had mainly practiced traditional Korean medicine such as acupuncture and physiotherapy, had all left the country. On the sign announcing the hospital, only the North Korean and Mongolian flags hanging side by side remained, and there were no North Korean doctors to be found. Was that why just one a sense of desolation seemed to hang over the North Korean Embassy in the heart of downtown Ulaanbaatar?
Some call for the lifting of sanctions against North Korea. However, we must go back to why North Korea was hit with sanctions in the first place. Sanctions began with North Korea’s nuclear tests and long-range missile launches. We should not see the problem as one where an innocent North Korea is suffering because of the sanctions. Rather than To look at our government or international society as imposing unjust pressures or sanctions, we would be best served by urging North Korean authorities to quickly suspend nuclear development and embark on the path of economic reform and opening up.
Finally, I walked in the Mongolian desert. I had heard the testimony of a defector who had spent weeks crossing the desert without even a drop of water and I knew that I had to try to walk in his place. After only a few steps, I was ankle-deep in a sand trap; it was so hard to breathe that I felt like I was going to die! I had imagined something romantic, gazing at the Milky Way and throwing my body into the starlight, but this was no such place. In short, the desert gave me the impression of being at the crossroads between life and death.
I felt completely ashamed and contrite in front of these defectors. I had understood only a fraction of what it must have been like to walk and walk for days through the desert in pursuit of their hope for freedom. In the desert, where a single step can decide life or death, how many defectors have disappeared into the darkness? Even today, the procession of defectors continues. Kim Jong Un’s regime has doggedly pursued nuclear weapons with no end in sight for the test barrage. What we need right now is not unconditional dialogue. As for our deference to Kim Jong Un and our efforts to curry favor with the regime, the past five years have been enough. You can’t talk about peace with nuclear weapons hanging over your head. Standing in the middle of the Mongolian desert, I was struck by this simple truth: We must make improving human rights in North Korea our top priority and work to spread liberal democratic values in the country. With this renewed conviction, I returned home.
Translated by Rose Adams
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