North Korean Workers In Shanghai (上海)

This is an article about a group of North Korean workers who came to Shanghai for training. I'm nether the author nor the translator of this material from the Chinese to English. This gives one a brief but insightful look at North Korean citizens.

I work for a German-owned company in Shanghai. I spent three months recently with 10 North Koreans. Now that they have returned to their country, I think it is necessary to write down my experience with them, and share with readers what little we know about this mysterious country.

North Korea bought some German equipments from a third country. The reason that they had to buy from a third country is because Germany like all other western countries, forbids the export of high-tech equipments to North Korea. But the manufacturer wants to make the money, so they found a way to sell the equipment through a country in Africa. The Germans agreed to train the workers to operate the equipments for free. Because a German company in Shanghai bought the same equipments, they decided to train the North Koreans in Shanghai, at the site of that German company. A contract was signed between the two German companies and the Shanghai company will train the North Koreans. Because I work in the HR department in this Shanghai company, my boss decided that I would be responsible for their living arrangements. Technical training was the responsibility of Mr. Lin, head of the workshop. The German boss took this task very seriously, and hired an ethnic Korean Chinese, Miss Kim, from a (South) Korean company as a translator.

The 10 workers arrived in Shanghai by train from Shenyang (a large city in Manchuria). Miss Kim and I went to pick them up at the train station. They were 7 men and 3 women, all wearing dark blue suits with dark red ties, identical Kim picture buttons on their left chests, and identical black suitcases. Suits didn't seem to be wool but rather mixed polyester and wool material, and seemed wrinkled. After twenty plus hours on the train, even though they had the soft sleeper compartments, they all seemed exhausted. So the first impression was a group of out-of-place people wearing out-of-style suits. Leaving the train station the company bus took us to a mid-scale hotel. In the lobby of the hotel, we introduced to each other through the translation of Miss Kim. Their team leader is a middle-aged man, Mr. Lee. Because there were odd numbers of men and women, and all rooms were double rooms, so my first questions was whether there were married couples in the group. This made them all break their seriousness and smile a little. No, no couples. So we asked for 6 rooms, the team leader and one of the girls each occupied a room by themselves. If needed, Miss Kim would stay with the girl. I briefly taught them how to use the room card, telephone, and the places for breakfast and dinner. I also told them that they can eat anything in the refrigerator, and that the final bill would be paid by the Germans. Before leaving, I called the boss using my cell phone to tell him that everything went fine. As I was talking, all eyes stared at the cell phone in my hand. They are really curious.

Next day they started to work in the workshop. I discovered that the team leader was not a trainee. His job was to watch his team members all the time, never leaving them alone. I left them with the head of the workshop, but Miss Kim had to stay with them. Lunch was the same fast food as all other employees, and there was fruits after the lunch.

At the end of the day, I went to the workshop again, and rode with them back to the hotel on the company bus. This was a big bus that had 40+ people on it. It was the company bus that took employees from the suburbs to work and back. It was filled up after we got on. The bus first detoured to their hotel and continued after letting them off. Their part of the ride was less than 10 minutes. As we waited for dinner time, I asked the team leader whether he had any requests or problems with our arrangements. He made several suggestions. First was to remove all phones from the rooms except his room. He said that was to prevent the workers to make unnecessary phone calls to incur additional expense. Second he wanted to remove all channels on the TV except for two Central TV channels (one for music and one for sports), so that the workers could rest better. Third he wanted to reserve the front two rows on the bus so that they could sit together. These were easy to satisfy so I immediately called the front desk of the hotel and made the arrangements. As I was talking to the hotel staff, I was told that they ate a lot. Both breakfast and dinner were buffets, and the ten of them ate more than 30 Chinese would eat. In addition, the hotel staff couldn't keep up with the rate they were consuming the cold drinks in the refrigerators.

Nine workers each was trained on a different post, and each had a Chinese master to teach and show them how to operate the machine. The tenth person just wondered around from one post to another. Miss Kim was also working between these nine posts. Because most of the time they were following the motions instead of talking, one translator was enough. My job also seemed to have become easier.

But then a series of things happened.

Two of the posts needed to use computers. As time went, the trainees started to know how to use the computers. One day the team leader saw a worker looking at some pictures on the computer during the break time. He got very angry, and through Miss Kim, demanded that the computer be removed, and the job be done by hand instead, that is, to compute the amount of the material added by hand, because in their country they don't use computers. The master asked the boss, and got a no reply. The team leader was told that the computers were not connected to the internet so that there wouldn't be anything offensive to North Korea on the computers. Then the team leader asked with some skepticism, why were there pictures on the computer? The master was speechless. Turned out he downloaded them from his own mp3, which was against the company rules. Of course everyone did it and as long as it didn't affect the job, no one paid attention. But this time the management couldn't look the other way, and the master was demoted. He was unhappy and just a few days later he got a job in another company. As the master left, the North Korean worker felt very sorry and asked Miss Kim whether the master would be arrested and that he felt responsible for it. Miss Kim laughed and said, he only violated the company rules, didn't break any law, so he wouldn't be arrested. We are free here. He will go to work in another company tomorrow. The North Korean was very puzzled. He didn't understand why it was so easy to change the job in China.

After the computer incident, it was the library incident. A very hard working North Korean girl was always asking questions on her post. Of course they were technical questions. Many questions even the master couldn't answer, so he asked the head of the workshop, Mr. Lin, an engineer. Mr. Lin explained to her in detail, and told her that she could find additional materials in Shanghai Library, and that he would take her there to get the materials. So this girl actually studied English in North Korea. She asked and got the permission from the team leader but the team leader demanded that he went with them. On Saturday the girl, Miss Kim, and the team leader rode on a car provided by the company for Shanghai Library. Mr. Lin was to meet them midway from his home. Shanghai Library was near several foreign consulates. The car stopped at the American Consulate in Shanghai, when the team leader screamed don't stop! Everyone was wondering what happened. The team leader shouted, why are we at the American Consulate? The driver was puzzled, said that they would wait for Mr. Lin and then go to the library together. At this time Mr. Lin got on the car. The team leader asked how far away is the library? The driver said it's not far, about a few minutes away by walking. The team leader said let's go back to the hotel. The engineer (Mr. Lin) got angry. He shouted, you agreed to come, but now we're halfway there and you want to go back. You have to give reason. Don't treat us like fools. The team leader soften his voice and said, I'm sorry, it's our government's rule that all travelers must stay away from foreign embassies, especially American and Southern reactionary embassies. So we must go back. Mr. Lin had no choice but to get off the car, and let the rest of them return to the hotel. They never went to the library.

Because the weekend had two days off, each Saturday and Sunday they could only stay in their rooms watching TV and could not go out. But there were only two channels to watch, so they were very bored. Miss Kim suggested that she could take them to visit some tourist sites in Shanghai. The team leader agreed but asked for a list of the sites and their descriptions. Miss Kim suggested Yuyuan Park, the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Bund, the museum of the first congress of Chinese Communist Party, and Nanking Pedestrian Street. The team leader crossed out the museum, and agreed to all other sites. The company hired a mini bus, and I went along. All tickets were paid by the company. The first stop was the Oriental Pearl Tower. In the elevator up, one of them asked how many stories the next building had. I said it had more than 80 stories. Then they asked whether it was the tallest building in China. I said the tallest was in Taiwan. This was the tallest in Shanghai. But we were building a taller one and very soon the tallest building in China would be in Shanghai. Everyone loved the Yuyuan Park. We had lunch at the Nanxiang Dumpling Shop as planned and didn't have to queue because we had made reservations. Then we took pictures on the Bund, with the Oriental Pearl Tower in the background. A dramatic scene happened when we arrived at the Nanjing Pedestrian Street. The colorful signs, busy crowd, fashionable dresses of the people, all stunned the visitors. The team leader was looking at the scene but also keeping a watch on his team member. Finally when we stopped under a big advertisement for lingerie, the team leader shouted in Korean towards a work who was staring at the sign to stop, and said to Miss Kim that they should not look at the revisionist things any more, and should immediately return to the hotel. Miss Kim had learned the lesson from the library incident, and immediately led the group back the way they came, and called the bus driver to pick them up at the end of the pedestrian street. Despite the unhapppy ending, everyone was quite happy.

There were a few smokers among the trainees. When they ran out of cigarettes, the team leader allowed them to buy things from the little corner store across from the hotel, but disallowed them to go to the supermarket. Perhaps in his view, supermarket was capitalist. He also ordered his team members that they could only buy articles for use but not books, newspapers or magazines. So they went to the corner stores frequently, in addition to cigarettes, they also bought noodles, ramen, crackers, sausages, and bacon. It was beyond their imagination that they could buy all that stuff from a small corner store. In fact, the store had not sold bacon before, but when one of them asked for it, the next day the store carried bacon. It was obvious that the store owner liked these customers. The three women, they bought hygiene products but didn't know how to use them. Miss Kim taught them how to use them.

There were also a lot of little things that worth mentioning. Each of them had a mechanical watch, made in North Korea. They were very proud of their watches. But then they found out that in China most people didn't wear watches, only children had digital watches. They discovered that people used cell phones as watches. I already mentioned that they showed special curiosity to cell phones. They were quite surprised that everyone had a cell phone, even the cleaning lady had one.

When they learned that many of the company employees were from rural areas far away, and were hired without any paperwork from the local government, and that they all found their jobs by themselves after seeing the for-hire ads, they were shocked. They also saw beggars, and asked the masters why the beggars were not arrested. The answer was that begging was not against the law.

Three months passed, and it was time for their return to North Korea. Miss Kim and I sent them to the train station. The tickets were also paid for by the company. Unlike the identical black suitcases when they came, now each of them (including the team leader) had bags and bags of luggage, almost all foods. They have spent nearly their entire stipend here on these foods to bring back. To enter the station we must go through the security check. As the luggage went through the scanner, one of the bags had a problem. The security asked to see the content of the bag, a young man among them opened it, and in it had hundreds of cigarette lighters. These are forbidden to carry on a train, and there was only an hour before the train left. What do we do? I asked him how many there were. He said, very accurately, two hundred and thirty six. I took two hundred forty yuan and handed to him, and took the bag. He thanked me continuously. I do not smoke. Even if I did I wouldn't need that many lighers. But I knew that they had very little stipend and had almost no chance to come out of their country even for once. Two hundred yuan would let him to buy some more food in Shenyang at the next station. With the cigarette lighters I couldn't enter the train station. Before I turned around, I took a handful of lighters, about six or seven, and stuffed them into his pocket.

Then the team leader came to me, with translation by Miss Kim, he thanked me for helping them finish the task without incidents. They had 10 people when they came, and now they still had 10 people. There is only one transfer station in Shenyang, and hopefully no one would escape there.

I also finished my task, a task that was a little funny and a little sad.

After that, whenever I met someone who smoked, I would give him a lighter. It took me more than a year to give out all the lighters

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