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Factory in China tests North Korean workers for COVID after 20 show symptoms

Around 800 North Korean workers in the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong spent their May Day holiday getting tested for COVID-19 after about 20 of their coworkers began showing symptoms for the disease and were quarantined, sources in China told RFA.

The North Korean women are employed by a clothing company in the city’s Zhenan district. They are among the 80,000 to 100,000 North Koreans dispatched to China’s three northeastern provinces to earn foreign currency for their cash-strapped government.

Dandong has been locked down as part of China’s zero-COVID policy since last week. Workers would typically have off for May Day, an annual celebration of the fight for labor rights and an important holiday in communist countries. But workers were instead called into the factory for testing, a source in the city told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

​The factory where the 800 women work is an important one in the battle against COVID-19, as it produces protective medical gowns, the source said.

On April 27, about 20 suspected cases of COVID-19 were detected among North Korean workers at the company and the factory closed, the source said. The COVID-19 Pulmonary Infectious Disease Prevention and Control Command in Dandong diagnosed the suspected symptoms as laryngitis instead of COVID-19.

“The 20 or so North Koreans who appear to have symptoms of COVID-19 are currently being treated in isolation inside the factory,” the source said. “It is absurd to say that it is laryngitis when there are hundreds of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Dandong and the municipal government and disease control authorities are blocking roads and alleys and restricting the movement of people.”

COVID-19 has swept through companies employing North Korean workers before, but it was always kept a secret, the source said.

“Perhaps if it was confirmed that North Korean workers had COVID-19 there would be considerable ramifications if it became known to the public. I know that the North Korean consulate in Dandong and the Chinese government are fabricating information to cover it up,” he said.

“Even though it is a holiday for workers around the world, the North Korean workers are locked up in their company and taking nucleic acid tests.”

A health official from Zhenan district told RFA’s Mandarin Service on Tuesday said that there were confirmed coronavirus cases in the factory, but she could not say whether it was North Korean or Chinese workers who were infected. She said that information would not be released.

RFA Mandarin attempted to contact the factory but received no response.

Another source in Dandong told RFA’s Korean Service that because the company is making protective gear, the factory had to continue operations on the holiday.

“They don’t have time to enjoy the day because they are too busy producing COVID-19 protective suits and isolation gowns,” he said on condition of anonymity to speak freely. “They are working while wearing what they make.”

“There was a recent scare after North Korean women working in restaurants, hostess bars and public baths had a few suspected cases,” he said.

The source spoke of another case where four young North Korean women working at a hotel in Dandong were suspected cases.

“I heard from an acquaintance who works with them that they were immediately placed into quarantine because they were showing symptoms,” the second source said.

“As COVID-19 spreads here in Dandong, production rates at companies with North Korean workers fell dramatically. Companies that bought materials in advance, before things got so bad, are still forcing the North Koreans to come to work, even with the lockdown,” he said.

Millions of residents of major Chinese cities are facing rigid lockdowns and strict testing regimens as the country tries to stop the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19 under the Communist Party’s zero-COVID policy.

RFA reported last week that Dandong, which lies across the Sino-Korean border from North Korea’s Sinuiju, started shutting down on April 25 and stopped all rail freight on May 1, just months after it resumed after an almost two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.

North Korean labor exports were supposed to have stopped when United Nations nuclear sanctions froze the issuance of work visas and mandated the repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019.

But Pyongyang sometimes dispatches workers to China and Russia on short-term student or visitor visas to get around sanctions.

Translated by Claire Lee and RFA’s Mandarin Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.