Brutal punishment for laborers caught fleeing in Russia

[North Korean Overseas Labor Investigation ]
Daily NK  |  2016-06-25 11:58

After rising to power, Kim Jong Un has significantly increased the number of North Korean laborers sent abroad. In doing so, North Korean human rights abuses have emerged as an international issue. For its part, Daily NK will issue a series of six reports that delve into the abuses and labor conditions faced by North Korean workers sent to the foreign currency earning operations abroad that provide funding for the regime.

North Korean laborers working at an apartment construction site in the Ussuriisk region north of Vladivostok,
Russia. At Russian worksites, North Korean laborers are regularly mobilized in small groups, but make
up a minority of the workforce.When Daily NK approached the workers, they became visibly concerned
 and cautious. However, in response to questions in Korean, the two laborers answered
 that they both hailed from Pyongyang. 
Last month, Daily NK dispatched a special coverage team overseas to investigate reports of human rights abuses involving North Korean laborers in China, Russia, and Mongolia. Daily NKs special coverage team learned that some laborers dispatched to Russia to work were allegedly caught after an escape attempt and severely punished. The State Security Department [SSD] officials charged with monitoring the site responded to the incident by torturing the escapees, before forcibly repatriating them to North Korea. 

According to testimony given to Daily NK at the end of the month by North Korean laborers in Russia, escapees who are apprehended face extremely ruthless punishment in order to deter future attempts by others. In one such example, a laborer had his Achilles tendon severed by the authorities. In another case, the laborers were forced to lie down and had their legs broken with a construction excavator. Upon their return to North Korea, these handicapped laborers and their families are sent to political prison camps.

One laborer sent to the coastal province of Khabarovsk, Russia, at the beginning of the year testified to Daily NK, Previously, a worker fled from the worksite and hid out in a nearby church, where he was later discovered and caught. The SSD agents used a huge excavator to crush him. He was denied proper medical attention thereafter and became disabled. Its impossible for these SSD agents to forgive an escape attempt and so they made an example out of him. 

He continued, The last time we saw our colleague in question, he was skin and bones, injured, and had nothing but a simple bandage on his leg. He was forcibly repatriated in that condition. This is not an unusual or rare occurrence. Some laborers who try to escape have their Achilles tendon cut, and others are beaten with pieces of lumber. These kinds of escape attempts happen from time to time, but even if the laborers manage to flee, it is very difficult for them to survive. They have no choice but to wander about.

However, since this is Russian soil [and not North Korea], North Korean State Security Department agents shouldnt even have the authority to detain people, let alone break peoples legs, the source added.

A source from a separate worksite in Russia corroborated these allegations, stating that while North Korean workers sent to Russian construction sites are permitted relative freedom of movement in order to complete their tasks, the authorities create an atmosphere of terror by using extreme punishments, including the breaking of bones, to discourage all escape attempts. This additional source confirmed that upon their return to North Korea, transgressors families are rounded up with them and sent to political prison camps.

Besides escape attempts, there are other infractions that can earn laborers a return trip to North Korea and a prison term. They can suffer this fate, for example, if they complain about back pay being withheld. Individuals who complain about unfair conditions are quietly called in and told that they will be put on leave. In reality, they are repatriated and imprisoned, the source explained.  

As one individual affiliated with construction in Ussuriysk put it, The Russian government intended to make it extremely difficult for the North Korean authorities to put handcuffs on their fellow countrymen whilst inside Russia. However, the North Korean authorities have responded by resorting to horrifyingly inhumane measures to control their workers.  

North Korean laborers wait for transport at Vladivostok Airport.

Detention centers have been set up in isolated areas near worksites to inflict punishment on laborers who express dissent. A missionary in Russia who has had contact with numerous North Korean laborers reported that strict surveillance and beatings are used to threaten the workers, discouraging them from escaping or dissenting, saying, Those who dissent are thrown in these detention centers, where they endure particularly cruel punishment.        

The workers who are sent abroad do not even have the slightest understanding of the concept of human rights. They simply try to live on the money they are given for their work. They risk their lives and endure conditions we would consider unfit for animals, he added.

Sources have also pointed out that life is extremely grueling even for the laborers who work hard and follow all instructions. In such extreme work environments, simply caring for ones own health is a daily challenge. The high-intensity work environment is fraught with numerous risks and ever-present dangers. Those who are injured while working are forced to pay out of pocket for any treatment. The vast majority of the laborers are therefore unable to receive proper treatment for their injuries.  

In particular, workers who are forced to take time off to seek treatment must pay a prohibitive fine or have their wages confiscated. This is in addition to contributing the majority of their monthly earnings to the Korean Workers Party. Those who cannot afford the fine or medical treatment have no choice but to watch their wounds become infected.

A South Korean business representative in contact with North Korean laborers in the Vladivostok region spoke of frequent macabre humor among weary workers, who find solace in the notion that their death results in a small payout for their families. They accept that the value of their own life is less than that $1,000, he lamented.

He recounted an example from a few years ago, involving a fatal fall of an overseas worker, in which the enterprise responsible collected $10 from each of the laborers and amassed a sum of $2,000. In the event of such tragic accidents, half of the fund is used for the workers funeral and the other half is sent to the family. Although they collected these funds from the workers, the manager didnt contribute a single penny. The manager who was onsite at the time of the fall was responsible, but he ordered everyone to claim that he was absent on the day of the accident, he said.

*This article has been brought to you with support from the Korea Press Foundation. 

*Translated by Jonathan Corrado
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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