Unspeakable conditions for N. Korean laborers in Russia

[As Heard in North Korea]
Unification Media Group  |  2017-02-02 19:32

Daily NK and Unification Media Group will be interviewing victims of abuses and broadcasting excerpts of the recorded testimonies to listeners in North Korea as part of broader efforts to support the Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea, established in November 2016 pursuant to South Korea's North Korean Human Rights Act. It is hoped that this will raise awareness among the North Korean population that the outside world stands in solidarity against their oppression, as well as serve as a warning to the perpetrators that they will one day be held accountable.

Calls are mounting to hold those in the North Korean leadership accountable for crimes against humanity. The Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea was established in Seoul to document abuses perpetrated by the North Korean authorities and record the testimonies of victims of abuse. One of its major goals is to prepare the groundwork for a legal basis to prosecute those responsible in the North's leadership.

In order to understand the importance of why South Korea and the international community must undertake such work, we heard from victims of the North's human rights violations themselves. To better understand the importance of why the UN and the Republic of Korea government are taking such steps, lets turn to an individual story.     

Todays special guest spent two years in Russia as an overseas laborer beginning in 2012. His name is Kim Seong Kuk. In the previous episode, we heard from a North Korean overseas worker who suffered through backbreaking labor and wage exploitation. In todays episode, we will take a closer look at what systems the regime has in place to maintain control over its overseas laborers.  

We learned last week just how tough life can be for an overseas worker. But that is just half of it. The surveillance and control placed on the workers makes the experience even more difficult to endure. The first thing that the authorities did upon your arrival was seize your passport. Why did they do that? 

When someone has their own passport, they have the ability to move about freely. As they do so, they get the opportunity to see the world, and that experience really opens their eyes. This could influence them to try to escape. To stop this chain of events from happening, the authorities seize the laborers passports as soon as they arrive on site. Instead of a passport, workers are given a simple piece of paper with a stamp. The passports are only returned when the laborers return to North Korea after serving their time abroad. 

Weve heard that the authorities monitor and track workers by sending special surveillance agents. Can you tell us a little about these people?

They are agents dispatched by the State Security Department (SSD), and are officially called assistant managers, but this is just a clever lie. We called them the third. [Managers are called the first, and secretaries are called the second.] The third are the scariest. 

Why dont you call them security agents? Why do you call them assistant manager or the third? 

If the Russian government found out that North Korea has placed SSD agents in the country, theyd likely be deported. Thats why they pretend to be assistant managers. But the truth is that their function is to monitor and control the workers. 

In the last broadcast, we learned that a single company can use about 500 workers. How can one SSD agent possibly manage such a large number of workers?  

In addition to the official agents, there are also people who work as secret informants. This setup is quite similar to North Koreas domestic situation. The informants monitor and track the behavior of their fellow workers and submit reports to the third The workers dont know who these informants are. Normally, there is one informant for ever 5 or 6 workers, and they live and work right alongside the ordinary workers. They carefully monitor the ideological purity of their coworkers and secretly report it to the SSD agent. Thats how the third is able to maintain real time knowledge of every workers whereabouts and situation. 

If there is one informant for every five workers, that means that a company of 500 workers will have 100 informants. Is that right?

Yes, that is the case.

That is a surprisingly large number. Next, I want to ask about the living conditions. Laborers live in group units. Im curious about the lodging. How was it?  

The workers spend the duration of their time living in a shipping container [converted into a trailer]. All 500 workers usually just go back and forth between home and the construction site. About five or six individuals live in one container. None of the laborers have the chance to live in an apartment. The Russian companies that hire North Korean laborers install the containers right next to the construction site. The workers eat and sleep in them. An electric furnace is used to heat water. We used to dream about using a proper bathroom or a bathhouse to wash. 

Was it possible to eat three meals per day? 

Yes. One of the containers onsite was converted into a food stall. This gets managed by one person, who is responsible for preparing everyones meals. The workers gathered in the container to eat as a group. Rice and side dishes were provided by the company. Of course, money was subtracted from our paycheck to cover these costs. Each worker contributed USD $850 per month to the company, and some of that was used to cover the food costs. Sometimes we got frozen pollack on the table, but that wasnt easy. When we had tough work to do, we were sometimes provided with high protein foods like pig skin, which was extremely cheap. We usually ate it fried with some chili powder.   

If they didnt feed us, we wouldnt be able to work. I think thats why we got a sufficient amount. We were given the very cheapest version of everything, but the amount at least was enough. 

Was it possible to go out by yourself? 

Yes. Some people did contracting work. That usually means going to a Russian persons house to do chores or lay down tiles in the kitchen. There was also some roofing work available. It was possible to go out and do it alone, but usually we went in groups of two or three. It was usually a good idea to have one North Korean worker along who could speak a bit of Russian.  

Did you ever go out with your work group to relax on the weekend? 

That sort of thing was pretty rare. When we worked in our group units, there were some instances when we ran out of work. Usually this was because we ran out of materials. So five or six workers would remain at the site and wait for the supplies while the rest of the workers got some free time. But it wasnt much. It was enough to check out some of the shops in the local area. 

Did you have any experiences talking to Russian people? 

Yes. When we were on the job site, it wasnt just North Koreans there. There were also Russians working alongside us and other migrant workers as well, from countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. But it was hard to have in-depth conversations or become friends with them. We were just able to say hello.   

Did the other foreign workers also live in containers? 

Not all of them. For those who did live in containers, the conditions were much different from ours. Compared to us, they were able to keep more of what they earned, so they could buy whatever food their hearts desired.   

Seeing their living conditions made me quite upset. Were both human. We were doing the same work, but we were getting treated like insects. It felt so unfair. They lived better, ate better, and earned more than us. They worked 8 hours per day, but we were forced to work from 8:00 am to 11:00 pm. It was a slave-like existence. It made me fume. 

Were you required to participate in self-criticism or lectures while abroad? 

Yes, we did. Every week or two, we were sent lecture materials from the authorities. On the days that we got them, we would finish work an hour early (at 10:00 pm) so that we could discuss the materials. We would also do our self-criticism at this time. This was essentially an extension of our North Korean lives. Overseas laborers experience surveillance, lectures, and criticism sessions just like North Koreans do back home.    

Im curious about how strict the SSDs controls were. Did you see or hear about workers who were punished or repatriated?

The agents used to punish us for the smallest transgressions. They would gather a few of us in a room and curse us out for pursuing liberalism or not showing up at an agreed upon time. If you fell outside of their surveillance for a given period, theyd inquire and pressure you to admit that you had contact with a Russian person or a South Korean person. 

Under this sort of pressure, the laborers usually ended up giving money to the agent. If you cant pay, they let you go and call you again later. If you still cant pay, they issue a warning. After that, failure to pay will get you repatriated. Those who are repatriated do not get another opportunity to work abroad. Furthermore, once back in North Korea, they get calls from the local Party Secretary and SSD agents, so their lives are busy and stressful. Thats why most workers pay right away. 

What happens to workers who try to escape and get caught? 

They send you back home if they catch you trying to escape. But before they send you back, they put your arms and legs in casts, and fix them in place using iron bars. Then they cover it all up with bandages. This makes it very difficult to move. To Russian people who might happen to see, it looks like an injured person. They are sent on an airplane with the casts in place, and will be executed as soon as they arrive back in North Korea. 

That is a shocking violation of human rights. I heard that your original intention for going to work as a laborer in Russia was to save U.S. $8,000-10,000 so that you could buy a house in Pyongyang. How much were you able to earn from the time you started working in 2012 until the time you defected in 2014? 

I had about $2,500 in my hand at the time. I was worried about my family back in North Korea, so I sent them $2,000. With the remaining $500, I was able to survive as I made my way to South Korea.  

Is there anything youd like to say to your family in North Korea? 

To my kids, I want to say: I hope that you are healthy, and I want to ask you to be strong for me until a brighter tomorrow comes.

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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