In late September, I traveled to Vladivostok for around ten days to check how the lives of North Korean workers in the country have changed since I last visited in January 2020. 

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2397, which imposed sanctions on North Korea, ruled that all dispatched North Korean workers be repatriated by Dec. 12, 2019. However, following the complete suspension of  travel between Pyongyang and Vladivostok because of the worldwide spread of COVID-19, some workers have not been able to return to North Korea.

Before 2020, North Korean workers could be easily found anywhere on Vladivostok construction sites. However, it soon became clear to me that the number of laborers in the city has declined since my last visit.

Since the visas of the North Korean workers in Russia have expired, they are now harder to find at large scale construction sites in Vladivostok. The jobs the North Korean workers left are being filled by workers from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Many new apartments were built in the Soviet era, and now many of these apartments are being remodeled. Skilled North Korean workers who have some command of the Russian language live alone while conducting remodeling jobs. Once a week, they hand over a portion of their wages to North Korean officials at their group housing facility and participate in criticism sessions. 

A large number of laborers are working in this building, under construction in Ussuriysk, Russia. Image = Daily NK source
A large number of laborers worked on this building in Ussuriysk, Russia. / Image: Daily NK

The majority of those working at large scale construction sites have room and board in temporary group housing located on construction sites. During the course of this trip, I found it difficult to find North Korean workers anywhere at large scale construction sites. According to the workers, most do remodeling jobs on an individual basis, rather than in groups, and the criticism sessions they previously gathered for once a week are now mostly conducted by phone due to COVID-19 worries. 

Meanwhile, there are a few North Korean restaurants open and doing business in Vladivostok. Just before COVID-19, these restaurants were packed with South Korean tourists and local customers. I discovered that the Goryeogwan and Pyongyanggwan restaurants were doing business as normal, but that the Kumgangsan Restaurant was closed. Kumgangsan Restaurant, due to its close proximity to a prominent Vladivostok tourist spot, Eagle’s Nest Hill, had been frequented by South Korean tourists before the coronavirus outbreak. 

North Korean restaurant employees were very befuddled by a South Korean (me) visiting their restaurants, and they even stopped me from taking videos or pictures. The employees said that the alcohol, cosmetics and other products sold at the restaurant were no longer available because airplanes are not flying between Russia and North Korea anymore. Indeed, flights are suspended between the two countries due to COVID-19, suggesting that the lack of such products is not due to sanctions. The North Korean restaurants remain as packed as ever, and the profits, just as before, will flow into the Kim Jong Un regime’s coffers. 

On Apr. 26 of this year, Rodong Sinmun reported that a sign denoting a historic site was erected to commemorate Kim’s past visit to Vladivostok. I went to the Vladivostok train station platform and found this sign standing side by side with another detailing Kim Jong Il’s visit in 2002. This seems to indicate that COVID-19 has not heavily impacted the political relationship between Russia and North Korea.

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