North Korea’s living exports

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner
7/25/2007

It has been known since the early 1990s that North Korea exports manpower to eastern Russian logging sites. But two remarkable incidents over the past years reveal that the foreign-currency-strapped nation also sends laborers to other, somewhat less expected places in the world.

When North Korea won a soccer game over Japan at the Asian Games in the Qatari capital Doha last December, its cheerleaders became so excited that they rushed on to the field and carried the players on their shoulders around the grounds. They could do that, because the North Korean cheerleaders were not, as cheerleaders usually are, young, petite women. They were all male – sturdy, middle-aged construction workers who belonged to the contingents of laborers that the North Korean government is sending to work in the Middle East.

Then, in January, the managing director of an unnamed construction firm was found slashed to death, and one of his workers hanged, in a building in the East Malaysian riverside town of Sibu, on the fringes of the jungles of Sarawak. The businessman was identified as Ri Won-gil, 52, and the worker as Kim Kwong-ryun, 47 – both North Koreans. Their company had “been doing contract work here for years”, the Malaysian Star newspaper reported, although it was not clear what kind of work that was.

As many as 70,000 North Koreans are currently working in various countries, Kim Tae-san, a defector who testified last year on North Korean migrant labor to the European Parliament, told US-financed Radio Free Asia (RFA) this year. Other estimates are considerably lower, but it is evident that labor export is becoming an important source of income for the government in Pyongyang.

Today, North Korean workers are found not only in Russia, Malaysia and Qatar but in Dubai, Mongolia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and possibly also some African countries. Many are dispatched through labor agencies based in China, and most of their salaries end up in the coffers in Pyongyang. As North Korea does not publish any economic statistics, it is not known exactly how much it earns from exporting labor to other countries, but is it believed by North Korea-watchers to be bringing in millions of US dollars annually.

In addition, tens of thousands of North Koreans are working illegally in China, and sending money home to their relatives. This may not directly benefit the Pyongyang regime, but it helps alleviate poverty in the country, and therefore stifle possible social unrest on the level that actually hit the North Korea during the great famine in the early and mid-1990s. On a more organized level, trusted citizens are sent by Pyongyang to work in North Korean-run restaurants not only in China – Beijing and Shanghai – but also in Russia, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. Profits from those enterprises are, naturally, sent to Pyongyang, or to support the activities of North Korean diplomatic missions in those respective countries.

Russia, or the erstwhile Soviet Union, is the oldest destination for North Korean labor, and it probably began when in 1967 Soviet secretary general Leonid Brezhnev and North Korea’s Kim Il-sung reached an agreement to bring manpower to sparsely populated eastern Russia. In September 1996, Amnesty International stated in its “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea/Russian Federation: Pursuit, Intimidation and Abuse of North Korean Refugees and Workers”, one of the earliest reports on the subject: “North Korea brought in the manpower and ran the logging sites, while the Soviet Union provided the natural resources. The profit, reportedly many million dollars over the years, was split between the two countries.” Some of the income was also reportedly used to pay off North Korea’s debt to Russia.

Today, according to Moscow’s Ministry of Economics, 90% of North Korea’s “exports” to Russia consist of workers. An estimated 2,500 North Koreans are to be found in Primorye, or the maritime region adjacent to the Sea of Japan, and almost all of them work at construction sites in Vladivostok and Nakhodka. According to local sources, they sleep in dormitories and eat together under portraits of the late Kim Il-sung and his son, current ruler Kim Jong-il.

Political classes are held every week under strict supervision of members of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. The supervisors, who belong to North Korea’s security police, also collect their salaries from the Russian construction companies that have hired them, and give the workers only food and some pocket money. The bulk of their incomes are sent back to Pyongyang, or used to buy computers and other electronic equipment for North Korea’s small but burgeoning information-technology industry.

Many more North Koreans – the exact figure is not known but is believed to be at least 10,000 – work under similar conditions in logging camps in Khabarovsky krai (region) and Amursky oblast (province). The main camps in Khabarovsky krai are around Chegmodyn and Alonka in the Verkhnebureinsky region, in the wilderness some 680 kilometers north of Khabarovsk. In Amursky oblast, logging camps with North Korean workers are found in the north along the Yuktali, Yukcha and Gilyui rivers, and along the Arkhara River in the southeast. Fenced off with barbed wire, these camps are in extremely remote areas from which it is almost impossible to escape.

Some Russian logging firms – now all privately owned since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist system in 1991 – pay in cash, while others reportedly let the North Koreans keep 40% of the timber they fell as payment. Those logs are sent to North Korea by train, and resold to China, or used in North Korea itself, which has almost no forests left and therefore no timber.

According to Lyudmila Erokhina of the Vladivostok State University of Economics and Services, North Korean workers are preferred in the Russian Far East because they work hard and never complain: “They were brought up as law-abiding citizens in a strictly controlled society.” On the other hand, Chinese and Vietnamese guest workers in the Russian Far East are known to have raised demands for better working conditions, and are alleged by many Russians to be engaged in sometimes dubious local businesses, often in black or gray areas.

The good behavior of North Korean workers and their willingness to put up with harsh conditions may have been selling points when in more recent years Pyongyang began sending laborers to the Middle East, where they, according to RFA, mostly perform “low-skilled labor, such as plastering and bricklaying. The North Korean workers receive meager wages, even lower than the Nepalese workers, who have been known to receive the lowest pay of all foreign laborers” in, for instance, Qatar.

“The entire wage received by North Korean workers goes to the North Korean authorities. In order to make some money they can keep, they have to moonlight,” RFA quoted a South Korean resident in Qatar as saying. Thousands of North Korean construction workers are reported to be living under similar conditions in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

In the Czech Republic, hundreds of North Koreans, mostly women, work in factories producing auto parts, or as seamstresses in the garment industry. According to the US State Department’s 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report, the North Korean regime “provides contract labor for private industry in the Czech Republic. There are allegations that this labor is exploitative, specifically that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] government keeps most of the wages paid to the North Korean workers and that workers’ movement is controlled by DPRK government ‘minders’.”

Since the formerly communist Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004, it has been compelled to investigate the conditions of North Korean workers in country. But according to the US report, the Czech government “to date … has not confirmed that they enjoy freedom of movement away from DPRK government ‘minders’ and are not subject to other coercive practices, such as the collection of a majority of the workers’ salaries by DPRK officials”.

Soon, however, the North Koreans in the Czech Republic may be going home because of international pressure. No new work permits will be issued to them, and those who have permits will not have them renewed, which means that by the end of this year there will be no more North Korean workers in that country. The main problem from the Czech government’s point of view is that, since it joined the EU, tens of thousands of its own workers have left to seek higher wages in western Europe, so foreign labor is badly needed. And who could be better than hard-working, compliant North Koreans?

But if they are no longer wanted in the Czech Republic, there are many other countries willing to hire North Koreans – and, as long as Pyongyang needs foreign currency, the export of labor is also likely to continue.

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