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North Koreans in Russia Work Under Unspeakable Conditions | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The new ferry boat between North Korea and Russia, arriving in Vladivostok last month. The ferry service comes as local businesses have started to use North Korean workers for low-cost labor. Credit James Hill for The New York Times

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia- The Russian city of Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean has embraced a new icon of border-crushing globalization: the North Korean painter.

Unlike migrant workers in much of the West, workers from North Korea are so welcome that they have helped make Russia at least the equal of China — as the world’s biggest user of labor from the impoverished yet nuclear-armed country.

“They are fast, cheap and very reliable, much better than Russian workers,” Yulia Kravchenko, a 32-year-old Vladivostok homemaker, said of the painters. “They do nothing but work from morning until late at night.”

The work habits that delight Vladivostok homeowners are also generating sorely needed cash for the world’s most isolated regime, a hereditary dictatorship in Pyongyang closing in on a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States. Just last week, the North reached a milestone by testing its first intercontinental ballistic missile.

Squeezed by international sanctions and unable to produce many goods that anyone outside North Korea wants to buy — other than missile parts, textiles, coal and mushrooms — the government has sent tens of thousands of its impoverished citizens to cities and towns across the former Soviet Union to earn money for the state.

Human rights groups say this state-controlled traffic amounts to a slave trade, but so desperate are conditions in North Korea that laborers often pay bribes to get sent to Russia.

North Korean laborers helped build a new soccer stadium in St. Petersburg to be used in next year’s World Cup, a project on which at least one of them died. They are working on a luxury apartment complex in central Moscow, where two North Koreans were found dead last month in a squalid hostel near the construction site. They also cut down trees in remote logging encampments in the Russian Far East that resemble Stalin-era prison camps.

But they have left their biggest and most visible mark in Vladivostok, providing labor to home repair companies that boast to customers how North Koreans are cheaper, more disciplined and more sober than native Russians.

The home repair industry stands at the more benign end of North Korea’s labor export program. Painters and plasterers are not generally subjected to the brutal mistreatment endured by North Koreans working in Russian logging camps or on construction sites.

Though rigidly controlled by minders from the Workers’ Party of Korea, the ruling party in Pyongyang, they do not, on the whole, live in what the State Department in its recently released annual report on human trafficking called “credible reports of slave-like conditions of North Koreans working in Russia.”

All the same, they still suffer from what human rights groups say is a particularly egregious feature of Pyongyang’s labor export program: Most of their earnings are confiscated by the state.

A lengthy report on North Korean workers in Russia issued last year by the Data Base Center for North Korean Human Rights, a group in Seoul, said the Workers’ Party of Korea seizes 80 percent of the wages earned by forestry workers and at least 30 percent of the salaries paid to laborers working in construction. Further money is taken to cover living expenses, mandatory contributions to a so-called loyalty fund and other “donations.”

This “exploitative structure,” the report said, constitutes “one of the fundamental causes of the North Korean workers’ inhumanly hard labor in Russia.”

The human rights group estimated that the North Korean authorities earn at least $120 million a year from laborers sent to Russia, a vital source of income for a family dynasty founded, with Moscow’s backing, by Kim Il-sung in 1948 and now headed by his 33-year-old grandson, Kim Jong-un. It put the number of North Koreans working in Russia at nearly 50,000, though other studies say the number is 30,000 to 40,000, which is still more than in China or the Middle East, the other principal destinations.

The Russian boss of a Vladivostok decorating company that employs scores of North Koreans said the amount of money seized from salaries had increased substantially over the past decade, rising to a current monthly rate of 50,000 rubles, or $841, from 17,000 rubles a month in 2006.

He said his highest-paid workers now lose half or more of their monthly salary through confiscation, while the leader of each construction squad of around 20 to 30 laborers takes an additional cut of about 20 percent in return for finding painting jobs for his men.

The Russian asked that he not be identified because he feared that Workers’ Party supervisors would punish his laborers or prevent them from working with him.

The increased rate of confiscation followed a sharp fall in the value of the ruble against the dollar, a troubling development for a regime that wants dollars, not rubles.

But the jacking up of the amount of rubles seized more than compensated for the ruble’s fall, reflecting Pyongyang’s desperate hunt for more cash since Kim Jong-un took power in December 2011 and ramped up North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

International sanctions and a Chinese ban on imports of North Korean coal in February after a series of missile tests have steadily squeezed Pyongyang’s other sources of foreign revenue. That has left the export of labor, along with a string of state-run restaurants and other small businesses in Vladivostok and elsewhere, as one of the regime’s shrinking list of ways to generate hard currency.

To prevent them from seeking refuge in South Korea, North Korean laborers are forced to live together in cramped dormitories scattered around the outskirts of Vladivostok and prohibited from contacting Russians and other foreigners outside work.

The boom in North Korean labor exports to Russia coincides with an expansion of other links between the two countries, including a recent surge in Russian coal exports and the start in May of a new ferry service twice a week between Vladivostok and Rason, a special economic zone on the east coast of North Korea.

In April last year, just months after North Korea announced that it had tested a “miniaturized hydrogen bomb,” Russian and North Korean officials gathered south of Vladivostok to celebrate the reopening of Kim Il-sung House, a wooden building dedicated to the memory of the dictator. It had been rebuilt, at Russia’s expense, after a fire.

The New York Times