176 North Korean workers in Sarawak missing

KUCHING • Some 176 North Koreans hired to work at construction sites in Malaysia's Sarawak state have been missing from work since March 17, reported The Borneo Post yesterday.

The local daily said the North Koreans appeared to have left in a great hurry, leaving behind their personal belongings and work equipment, including clothes, tools, helmets and boots.

Sarawak immigration director Ken Leben said the workers should technically still be in the state as there were no records of them leaving, but he declined to elaborate owing to the fragile diplomatic relationship between Malaysia and North Korea.

Malaysia had earlier this month barred North Koreans from leaving the country, after a diplomatic stand-off with North Korea over the Feb 13 death of Mr Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

North Korea had imposed a reciprocal travel ban on the nine Malaysians in Pyongyang.

Yesterday, however, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the nine Malaysians had left Pyongyang and would arrive in Malaysia today, and that the travel ban on North Koreans had been lifted.

Construction at one site had been halted for some time, but resumed yesterday, with only local workers. All the belongings left behind by the North Koreans were left untouched in their living quarters on the construction site.

A local worker named Alec told The Borneo Post that the North Korean workers, most of whom were in their 40s, left without notifying anyone of where they were going. He added that they were diligent workers.

He said: "They were very cooperative and they displayed high team spirit... They seemed to work at a slow pace, but they worked very systematically.

"After we have clocked out, we could still see them working... They were like ants - working quietly to finish the workload passed to them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2017, with the headline '176 North Korean workers in Sarawak missing'. Print Edition | Subscribe