An incident has exposed that North Korean labourers may be sneaking into Africa for gainful employment disguised as Chinese workers, placing new scrutiny on Beijing over a possible violation of UN sanctions on Pyongyang.
All looked calm until a worker on a Chinese construction site in Algeria recently fell to his death. The incident in Bir El Djir, a town located northeast of Oran City in the Oran Province in Algeria involved a man in his thirties who fell “from the top of the building,” according to a local police report.
The cause of the fall was not immediately declared, but police later found the man was in fact a North Korean who was working on a site run by a Chinese company.
Algerian publication La Carrefour d’Algerie quoted police as saying the man died before medical response arrived, but the paper also said the safety precautions on the site had been neglected, adding that: “In spite of frequent reports, many construction sites in the region are stripped of the safety measures.”
The incident would have passed as a mere accident, except that the mention of a North Korean may place the Chinese company in a tight spot to explain how he ended up working for them. Hiring labourers from North Korea amounts to a violation of sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its nuclear missile construction projects.
UN Security Council Resolution 2375, passed on 11 September 2017, among others, banned joint ventures, textile exports, natural gas condensate and liquid imports; and banned North Korean nationals from working abroad in other countries. It was unclear at the time of the incident whether the man had been exported from North Korea to work in Algeria.
But reports in Algeria had cited several Chinese companies working in the construction business employing North Koreans, especially in the Douera region where it is alleged at least 170 North Koreans were hired to put up apartment buildings by Chinese companies ZCIGC Zhenjiang, and Oran-Pekin Construction, Zhongma International, Sarl 3 Construction Engineering de Dongyang in Bir el-Djir in Oran. None of these firms responded to email inquiries on how they recruit foreign labour.
North Korean labour is not entirely new in Africa. For example, the Chinese firm Henan International Cooperation employed several North Koreans to work on the modernisation of a religious city in Senegal. The project worth $200 million was, however, completed before renewed sanctions were imposed in 2017.
Senegal has long been in the spotlight for defying UN sanctions against North Korea. In 2019, it was accused of giving false information to the UN that it had shut down a company it had engaged for the construction of a Pan-African monument in Dakar. The monument was put up by North Korean workers.
The Chinese embassy in Algeria did not comment on the incident and employment of foreigners on firms in Africa. But Beijing has recently opposed any further sanctions on North Korea, arguing they have crashed the country’s economy and that they ruin the possibility of dialogue to end the nuclear dispute.
“Our position is consistent. We hope all parties will stay committed to seeking a political settlement, and address each other’s concerns in a balanced way through meaningful dialogue,” Mao Ning, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson told press briefing last month when asked whether Beijing supports tougher sanctions on Pyongyang.
In 2017, china announced it had banned all imports of coal from North Korea for the rest of the year as well as exports of some petroleum products and imports of textiles from North Korea in line with United Nations resolutions. But the US government has accused Beijing of helping North Korea evade sanctions with the State Department estimating that at least 20,000 North Korean labourers are on Chinese soil, despite the requirement to return them home in respect to the sanctions.
Besides labour ban, the UN sanctions also mean North Korea cannot export coal, iron and seafood and neither can their Trade Bank deal with international business. They also called for the repatriation of all North Korean nationals earning income abroad within 24 months. The resolution also authorised member states to seize and inspect any vessel in their territorial waters found to be illicitly providing service to North Korea.
Last month, Mauritius was trying to deport North Koreans found on a Philippine-flagged fishing boat known as Jin Xiang in December. The captain of the boat was a Chinese man named Wang Wong who had lied to Mauritian Passport and Immigration Office (PIO) agents that his crew were Filipinos. PIO officials said the vessel was owned by the Chinese company Huanqui Tuna Fishing Dalian.
“The documents of these so-called fishermen were checked one by one. It turned out that six of them are of North Korean nationality and that they were not supposed to be on board this boat and were not yet authorised to be on Mauritian territory,” Narendrakumar Boodhram, the Superintendent of Police told local media.
According to Le Matinal newspaper, the crew arrested in Mauritian waters were each fined 10,000 Mauritian rupees and were to be deported to their countries. But officials hadn’t got a flight to return North Koreans back to their country as the country is still locked down.
It was unclear how the north Korean workers were employed on the Chinese vessel, however. The State Department’s human trafficking report says these workers provide cheap labour where they can work for low pay and as low as one meal a day as many of the workers are undocumented, making it easy to disguise their identity and help North Korea earn revenues abroad.