By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL/BEIJING/SHANGHAI/SHENYANG, Dec. 23 (Yonhap) -- A U.N.-imposed deadline for member countries to repatriate North Korean workers home has arrived, but many of them are expected to continue working abroad using stay permits other than work visas, experts said Monday.
The U.S. State Department earlier estimated that around 100,000 North Koreans were working abroad, bringing some US$200-500 million to their home country every year.
In 2017, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution requiring member countries to send home all North Koreans earning income in their jurisdiction in two years following the North's series of nuclear and missile provocations. The deadline was Sunday.
According to interim sanctions implementation reports submitted by the member countries, 23,267 North Korean workers have returned home.
But China, the North's economic lifeline that hosts the largest number of North Korean workers, declined to disclose its report.
Russia has repatriated 18,533 North Korean workers, though 11,490 still remain, according to its March report.
At a time when China and Russia are pushing to lift some sanctions imposed on North Korea, it remains unclear how far the two countries will further cooperate in pressuring Pyongyang through the sanctions.
Last month, North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui met with Russian officials in Moscow and agreed to strengthen cooperation between the two countries from a "strategic point."
The two countries did not provide details of the talks, but repatriation of the North Korean workers was considered one of the possible agenda items during the meetings.
China maintains it will "earnestly fulfill" its "international responsibilities and deal with relevant matters according to the resolutions," but experts say Beijing's full-fledged crackdown on such workers is unlikely.
On Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said North Korea-related resolutions "require not only imposing sanctions, but also adjusting sanction measures at a proper time and working for political settlement," in its latest call for easing the restrictions on Pyongyang.
Major North Korean restaurants are continuing operations in China even after the repatriation deadline, though some have shut down. Sources said many of the laborers have already secured stay permits other than work visas to keep their jobs in the country.
Chinese authorities appear reluctant to close such loopholes at a time when it has vowed with the North to beef up their bilateral relations, in line with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic ties.
"We cannot rule out the possibility of China overlooking this situation to use it as a diplomatic option when negotiating with the United States," Chung Eun-sook, a researcher at Sejong Institute, said.
U.N. member countries are supposed to submit their final reports on the sanctions implementation by March next year.
The repatriation deadline came amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, with the North threatening to seek a "new way" in its nuclear negotiations with the U.S. unless Washington sweetens its negotiating proposal by the end of the year.
On Sunday, the North's state media said leader Kim Jong-un presided over a key meeting of the ruling Workers' Party to discuss measures to "bolster up" its armed forces ahead of an expected plenary meeting.
North Korea said it will decide on "crucial issues" during a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers' Party that will be held in the "latter part of December," raising speculation that a major policy shift might be forthcoming, possibly in relation to its denuclearization negotiations with the U.S.
The negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim in Hanoi collapsed without a deal in February.
U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun urged the North to come back to the negotiating table during his recent trip to Asia, but Pyongyang has not responded to the call.
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