North Korean leader Kim Jong-un recently issued an order to send as many workers as possible abroad to earn hard currency, never mind the risk of defections, according to a South Korean government source.
This is a relatively unconventional position given that the North Korean regime has tried to limit the number of workers abroad to prevent "contamination" by foreign influences.
The source said North Korea has dispatched over 30,000 workers to some 40 countries around the world and plans to send out another 10,000 this year. "The reason is that sanctions by the international community have dried up North Korea's sources of cash," the source added.
The North Korean workers abroad make over US$100 million a year in foreign currency. The monthly salary of these workers varies from US$200 to $1,000 depending on region and industry, but they get only 10 to 20 percent of the salary while the regime takes the rest. The share that goes to the regime, which is handled by a Workers Party department known as Room 39, is billed as party loyalty funds, tax, insurance, and accommodation.
Room 39 manages Kim's funds and directs businesses earning foreign currency through 17 overseas offices and 100 trade firms under its roof. During Kim Jong-il's reign, it made an average of $300-400 million a year. About $100 million came from workers' salaries, $100-200 million from export of weapons, trade in forged currency and drugs, and another $100 million from economic cooperation with South Korea.
But when package tours to Mt. Kumgang for South Koreans came to a halt in July 2008, it lost a steady source of some $50 million a year. North Korea's arms export industry suffered hugely from sanctions imposed by the international community after its nuclear and missile tests in 2009, and the fatal blow came when South Korea halted all trade after the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan in 2009. Room 39's annual income has reportedly dropped to $200 million.
A diplomatic source said, "Kim Jong-un must be desperate for money because he has to buy gifts and throw parties to ensure the loyalty of his inner circle. North Korea has no other choice but to increase the number of workers overseas." Dispatch of additional 10,000 workers is expected to boost Kim Jong-un's funds to $300 million a year.