North Korean Loggers in Siberia

Korea Times:
11/13/2006
Andrei Lankov

For the last few decades a visitor to Eastern Siberia would sometimes come across unusual logging camps: fenced off with barbed wire, they sported the telltale portraits of Kim Ilsung and Kim Jong-il. These are North Korean camps: from the late 1960s, North Korean loggers have been working in Russia’s Far East.

In the 1960s the timber shortage was felt both in North Korea and the USSR, but the reasons for the shortages were different.

The Russians had plenty of forest, but lacked labor. When the gulags were emptied after Stalin’s death, few people were willing to up and fell trees in remote corners of Siberia.

The North Koreans had an abundance of cheap labor, but almost no good timber. Thus, the two Communist states had a potential match made in heaven.

In March 1967, when the relations between the two countries began to recover after a serious chill, the logging agreement was signed.

According to the agreement North Korean loggers were allowed to work in designated areas of the Russian Far East.

They were housed in special labor camps, run by the North Korean administration. The timber was to be divided between the two sides: the Russians 60 percent and the North Koreans 40 percent.

At their peak in the mid-1980s the Far East joint logging projects employed over 20,000 North Korean workers. This means that some 0.5 percent of all North Korean able-bodied men labored there. Nowadays, the operations are smaller in scale, with some 8,000 workers employed. An additional 3,000 North Korean workers are employed in other joint projects in Russia (construction industry, vegetable gardening etc.). Since the workers were rotated every three years, it is likely that up to a quarter of a million North Koreans have taken part in this project over the decades.

Politically, this was not as dangerous as it might seem. Even in the 1960s, the Soviet Union had far higher standards of living and was much more liberal and permissive society than the North.

However, the North Korean workers were in the middle of nowhere, and kept under the watchful eyes of their supervisors in the nearly isolated camps. People who broke the rules were arrested and sent back to the North. If it was deemed too difficult or impractical, they could be killed on the spot _ the Siberian forests provided more than enough space for unknown burials.

The Soviets usually turned a blind eye to everything the North Korean administrators did. In the early 1990s the situation changed. During the heyday of perestroika, investigative journalists began to report on the conditions of the North Korean workers.

An expose of the prison maintained by the North Korean security police in one of the logging camps led to a particular public outcry. In those days the Russians felt a nearly universal enthusiasm for democracy and believed that Kim Il-sung’s regime would soon collapse.

There were also publications about the secret opium plantations and illegal harvesting of protected species of plants and animals _ both, frankly, long established pillars of North Korea’s foreign currency earning programs.

On top of that, some loggers used the change in the international situation to defect to the South. In those days, defectors were still rare and thus welcomed in Seoul.

In 1992-1994 it appeared that the entire timber project would be discontinued owing to political considerations. However, the situation changed. The events of 1992-2005 made Russians quite skeptical about democracy, and very suspicious of idealistic crusades of any kind.

Thus, the North Korean camps were left alone to the great relief of the local Russian administrators and businessmen who make good money out of these projects.

For them, the North Koreans were but a source of cheap labor, and they did not care how these “Orientals” were treated by their supervisors.

When the initial Russian enthusiasm for a free press died out, the local politicians learned how to keep journalists away.

By the late 1990s, it also became clear that South Korea was not going to encourage the defection of the loggers. On the contrary, anecdotal evidence indicates that loggers who approach the local South Korean consulate are unceremoniously turned away.

Seoul does not need these impoverished and potentially troublesome brethren in our sunshiny days! Of course, some loggers run away, but largely in order to find better job opportunities in Russia’s black economy.

There are about a thousand such runaways hiding in Russia now, but the authorities tend to ignore their presence.

But what was the incentive for the North Koreans workers? The short answer is: money.

Really good money _ at least, by North Korean standards.

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An affiliate of 38 North