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China Focuses on North Korean Workers

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

China-North Korea: South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported on 28 February that one of its sources said that Chinese authorities have started cracking down on North Korean migrant workers. The crackdown began after the Lunar New Year holidays sometime after 10 February. The North Korean nuclear detonation occurred on the 12th

"On the surface the checks are being carried out to see if Chinese companies followed due legal process in the hiring of foreign workers, but it may be a move to put pressure on North Korea," he said.

"Foreign workers must get formal permits from a Chinese personnel management company that first screens various personal information and linguistic skills that are not easy to meet," the source said. He said that because of such a complicated process to get permits, Chinese companies tend to hire North Koreans who are in the country illegally.

Others in China said that there are rumors that Beijing has put on hold the hiring of new North Korean migrant workers, and has made it harder for people already in the country with permits to extend their stay.

Yonhap reported there are estimated to be about 79,600 North Koreans working in China. Food processing and clothing factories in Shenyang and the surrounding Liaoning Province hire a significant number of them.

North Korean workers are hired because they are roughly 30 percent cheaper to employ than native Chinese and because they cannot change jobs without violating their work permits. Chinese employers can staff up to 20 percent of their workforce with foreigners, but the figure may vary depending on the industry and the workers' nationality.

Meanwhile, concerning the UN, this week a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, "The UNSC's discussions should be conducive to denuclearization of the peninsula as well as peace and stability in northeast Asia." Some recent Chinese commentaries on North Korean motives have been sympathetic, if not patronizing, arguing that North Korea behaves badly because it has an inferiority complex and is frightened.

Comment: A familiar Chinese pattern appears to be emerging. China's public diplomacy concerning North Korea appears more lenient than its direct treatment of North Korea. At the UN China seeks to keep the peace and maintain international stability in northeast Asia. However, the public call for international moderation does not prevent China from exacting stern punishment, quietly, by manipulating its direct ties with North Korea.

No official sources have confirmed that tighter border controls are a form of punishment for disregarding Chinese advice and warnings. Nevertheless, the North Koreans will understand the message of Chinese displeasure.

Stricter control of migrant workers disrupts, if not cuts off, a large flow of hard currency back to North Korea. It is real punishment. It also forces the Chinese businesses who hire illegals to share the costs of protecting Chinese strategic interests.

The North Korean leadership may try to ignore it. Tighter population control along the border is an action about which the North Koreans cannot rightfully complain. It is more of a reminder of the range of actions China can take to exert pressure on North Korea.

It is an indicator that Chinese leaders are in crisis management mode towards North Korea, having already crafted their escalation ladder and the next actions they will order, depending on North Korean behavior.

Iran: For the record. An Iranian naval destroyer, Sabalan, and a support ship, Kharg (which the Iranians call a helicopter carrier) this week transited the Strait of Malacca for the first time since the overthrow of the Shah. The two ships are en route the Chinese port of Zhangjiagang, near Shanghai, according to the Iranian navy commander.

Iraq: Prime Minister al Maliki cautioned that a victory for rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian government will spark a sectarian war in Iraq and in Lebanon that would create a new haven for al-Qaida that would destabilize the whole Middle East.

Comment: The warning from Prime Minister al-Maliki was made during an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. It was his strongest statement yet about the ripple effects of instability that could follow the overthrow of the Syrian government. It also makes clear once again that the Iraqi government is no supporter of the Syrian rebels.

End of NightWatch


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