Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China, in this April 12, 2016 file photo.
Flags of China and North Korea are seen outside the closed Ryugyong Korean Restaurant in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, China, in this April 12, 2016 file photo.
Joseph Campbell / Reuters

On June 2, three North Korean restaurant workers who fled from their jobs in China arrived in South Korea. In April, another 13 restaurant workers made a similar escape. The workers were part of a North Korean initiative to earn cash for the regime when aid from the Soviet Union dried up and a massive famine struck in the 1990s. The regime continues to send its citizens to work overseas and bring in revenue for the state. Most of the estimated 50,000 North Koreans working abroad are unskilled laborers, who primarily work in China and Russia under strict supervision. Restaurant staff, however, are typically upper class and politically connected—the kind of North Koreans who aren’t inclined to run away.

The defectors were able to evade capture by undercover North Korean police and Chinese officials. In fact, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that the first group of escapees used valid documents to cross the border from China into Thailand legally. This suggests that China may have let the defectors go in order to send a warning to North Korea about its increasingly erratic foreign policy decisions. 

The Chinese–North Korean relationship, which Chinese leader Mao Zedong once described as being “as close as lips and teeth,” has begun to show signs of wear. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear adventurism has provoked Beijing’s ire. For example, Chinese representatives did not attend North Korea’s 7th Party Congress in May—an unprecedented snub. And Beijing’s participation in international sanctions has cost North Korea by cutting off shipments of aircraft and rocket fuel, banning weapons sales, slowing down coal imports, and restricting all revenues not related to humanitarian purposes. Now, by allowing some of the country’s most politically connected citizens to escape, China has sent North Korea a strong message of disapproval, one that Chinese President Xi Jinping hopes will reaffirm just how much North Korea needs China’s patronage. What remains to be seen, is just how much further Xi will be willing to go.

It's important to ask why these defections are so irksome to Pyongyang. After all, only 16 North Koreans escaped. But the North Korean regime responded by blaming South Korea’s National Intelligence Service for kidnapping the restaurant workers and bringing them to South Korea against their will. These episodes provoked an extreme response because they threaten Pyongyang’s ability to control the narrative and shape public perception at home. 

South Korean intelligence estimates that North Korea operates 130 restaurants abroad, which bring in about $10 million per year in revenue for the cash-starved government. Typically, wait staff positions in such establishments are highly coveted because they offer relatively good pay, a steady income, and a safe work environment. And so, the people who get those jobs are among Pyongyang’s most politically connected citizens. (In fact, the 13 restaurant workers who defected in April were children of senior officials and employees of the Ryugyong Hotel—the unfinished, 105-story skyscraper in the heart of Pyongyang.) Potential restaurant staff are rigorously screened and selected based on their family and personal history. Only the most loyal, low risk, and beautiful women can be servers. And in most cases, their families must pay bribes for to get them the job. Leaving the country is another bonus. Outside of state sponsored work, getting a passport can be next to impossible; the usual bribe can cost upward of $3,000

But, in recent months, the job has become a lot less glamorous. North Korean restaurants have lost Chinese and South Korean customers after Pyongyang’s latest round of nuclear tests in April. Seoul urged South Koreans to avoid these restaurants when traveling in Asia. Meanwhile, China’s anti-hedonism rules, which curtail extravagant spending by government officials, have kept them away from pricey North Korean establishments.

Yet even as their restaurants are failing, restaurant managers feel the pressure to keep sending money to Pyongyang. As a result, most managers force their employees to work longer hours for less pay. In some cases, according to Daily NK, restaurants in Dandong, China have suspended employee salaries entirely. This once glamorous job is now fraught with stress, leading some workers to risk capture, repatriation, and even death as they attempt to defect. Beyond the most recent wave of escapes, in 2000 and 2007, at least two separate restaurants in China were shut down after workers attempted to flee.

A woman wearing traditional costume waits for customers behind the doors of a North Korean restaurant in Beijing, China, April 12, 2016.
A woman wearing traditional costume waits for customers behind the doors of a North Korean restaurant in Beijing, China, April 12, 2016. 
Damir Sagol / Reuters
Escaping from one of North Korea’s state-run enterprises is no easy feat. North Korean laborers receive special passports that allow them to work abroad, but these are confiscated by their managers to prevent individuals from leaving whichever country they work in. In the two most recent cases, however, Chinese officials suggest that the workers left the country with valid travel documents. The workers were somehow able to reclaim their passports and then obtain Thai tourist visas at the country’s embassy in Beijing. The first group escaped with their manager, meaning they might have gotten their passports from him. According to the allegations made by the regime, the second group received assistance from two South Koreans and one North Korean. Once in Thailand, the workers approached the South Korean embassy in Bangkok to ask for asylum.

It is still unclear why the workers weren’t stopped at the border. Chinese immigration officers receive instructions not to allow North Korean laborers to leave the country. Even if these officials did not know the rule when the first set of defectors left in April, they definitely would have by the time the second group crossed the border in May. And China is not known for lax border security. Chinese immigration authorities are well acquainted with the limitations of North Korean passports—they know that Pyongyang forbids anyone from traveling without government approval. Kim Tae San, a North Korean defector, said, “Every time I entered another country, immigration officials checked my passport as if I was possessing a fake one […] North Korean passport holders are meticulously inspected.” In fact, China tracks down, arrests, and repatriates thousands of North Koreans every year.

It is either because of Chinese indifference or commission that the defectors got free. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the two defections share many similarities: Both the April and May groups appear to have simply walked out of their workplace, trekking to a third country on their way to South Korea.

This would have been unthinkable in the past, and marks the first two known attempts at such brazen behavior. To be certain, other North Koreans have left their foreign restaurants in the past. But in those cases, Chinese officials did all they could to bring the workers back to the North Korean Government. For its part, Beijing noted that, “these people all had valid identity documents with them and exited the Chinese border in accordance with law. They are not DPRK citizens who illegally entered the Chinese territory…We always properly deal with this issue in compliance with international laws, domestic laws, and humanitarian principles.”

To explain China’s sudden penchant for playing by visa rules, it is worth remembering that Beijing’s power to influence Pyongyang is not as strong as it once was. After North Korea’s third nuclear test in February of 2013, China warned that it would not tolerate any further “troublemaking.” In turn, North Korea test fired three missiles. China’s growing concern and inability to pressure the regime was revealed again in 2015 when its top nuclear experts increased their estimates of North Korea’s weapons capabilities. China has also interrupted the stream of cash that flows into Pyongyang from overseas businesses and supported international sanctions against North Korea. These tactics go back as far as 2003, when China unofficially cut off oil supplies to North Korea for three days in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear standoff with the United States. Even though Chinese officials told North Koreans that technical difficulties were to blame, the timing and impact of the cutoff spoke for itself. This new statement suggests that China will not break international law just to support Kim Jong Un’s erratic regime. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s surprise meeting with Ri Yu-song, North Korea’s former foreign minister and current vice-chairman of the Workers’ Party, could be seen as a sign of North Korea responding to recent pressure and seeking to mend ties with Beijing.

To be sure, Xi is not about to throw away the Chinese­–North Korean relationship. Instead, he is demonstrating just how important China is as one of Pyongyang’s only allies. These measures are not bold enough to cause an outright fight between the two countries, but they’re big enough to send a message. Xi is demonstrating just how far Kim can push his luck against China.

If the punitive measures aren’t intended to cripple the regime, it’s hard to tell what their aims are. China has consistently voiced a desire for “normal” relations and a discontinuation of nuclear provocations. To that end, Beijing’s laissez faire approach to the recent defections has intensified pressure on the regime: leading to two outcomes. The first is that China allegedly gave food aid in exchange for discontinuation of nuclear testing. The second: Pyongyang sent foreign policy advisor Ri to meet with Xi in Beijing. These “carrots” represent policy initiatives that complement the “sticks.” They are designed to steer Pyongyang away from certain types of behaviors and toward others.

By raising the costs of continued intransigence and offering rewards for coming back into the fold, China is aiming to speed up the normalization timeline. It is important to remember, that China’s strategic aims look far more like the status quo than Washington’s. Beijing has not, and will not use tools such as sanctions and immigration policy to accomplish the international community’s goals. And since it doesn’t want to provoke a mass exodus of refugees across the border or starve the regime’s economy to the point of desperation, there are certainly limitations to these tools. China’s message is simple—Pyongyang is more than welcome to counter U.S. influence in the region, but any provocations that threaten the stability and welfare of Chinese society will be met with additional punitive measures.         

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JONATHAN CORRADO is in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service Asian Studies Program. He also works as a reporter and translator forThe Daily NK.
  • BRIAN MOORE is a Resident Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. He is also in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service Asian Studies Program.
  • More By Jonathan Corrado
  • More By Brian Moore