Where are Sarawak’s North Korean workers?

Ken-Leben-northlprea-sarawakPETALING JAYA: Questions are swirling on the whereabouts of 176 North Korean construction workers who have apparently vanished from their work sites in Sarawak.

The Borneo Post said a visit to one such site on March 17 found the workers’ belongings still at the site but the workers themselves, missing. The report added that the workers seemed to have left in a hurry as even their personal belongings had been abandoned.

This development was at odds with a statement from Sarawak immigration director Ken Leben, who told the paper the workers were still in the state as there was no record of them having left.

However, Leben added that he could not offer further details due to a directive from Putrajaya warning the department not to comment on the situation, the report said. This was because of the precarious diplomatic ties between Malaysia and North Korea at present.

According to the daily, another visit to the site yesterday found that local workers had taken over the construction project.

The workers told the paper that they did not know where the North Koreans were. One, who wanted to be known only as Alec, said the North Koreans had “just disappeared”.

Alec also said they worked hard.

“After we clocked out, we could still see them working. And the next day when we start work, they would normally complete that particular part of the project which they were working on the day before. They were like ants – working quietly and diligently to finish the workload passed to them,” Alec was quoted as saying.

“They seemed to work day and night. Apart from working, I don’t think they did anything else.”

Others told The Borneo Post that the North Koreans were very secretive and did not mix around with the local workers.

“We used sign language to communicate,” another construction worker who wanted to be known as Bob was reported saying.

“There was a leader among them and I think he was the contractor. He spoke English. And he seemed to treat the North Korean workers quite well.”

According to the human resources ministry, Sarawak is the only state in Malaysia with North Korean workers, employed by some seven companies mostly located at the Selantik coal field in the Sri Aman Division.

On March 8, Human Resources Minister Richard Riot Jaem said as far as his ministry was concerned, the North Koreans were categorised as non-resident workers, governed by the Sarawak Labour Ordinance.

The fate of the North Korean workers became an issue after deteriorating relations between Malaysia and North Korea following the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Jong Nam was killed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 in Sepang on Feb 13.