North Korea has made deep cuts to its logging operations in Russia in recent years due mostly to limited earning potential, worker unrest and the might of Chinese competition. However, Pyongyang is said to be also using military-run enterprises to develop some other business opportunities inside Russia, notably in construction.
Kim, a defector who arrived in South Korea in 2008 after working for 30 years in the North Korean forestry sector, explained to The Daily NK on the 5th, “North Korea’s operations in Russia are now just enough to send timber to North Korea on the birthdays of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il; they provide little real benefit in terms of foreign currency earning.”
In essence, Kim went on, “North Korea is just running the Forestry Mission to maintain its relationship with Russia.”
Following a 1967 agreement between the two countries, logging has at times played a key role in North Korea’s hard currency earning efforts, with more than 20,000 North Korean laborers being involved in forestry operations in Russia by the start of the 1990s.
Under the agreement, Russia agreed to provide the trees, equipment and power, while North Korea would provide the labor, and both countries shared the timber.
However, the deal is no longer beneficial to the North Korean state, as Kim explained in more detail, saying, “At the moment, Russia takes 72% and North Korea 28% of what is felled by these North Korean laborers, but most of the money North Korea earns from selling it on to Chinese trade companies goes on the laborers’ wages, accommodation, food and administration of the Forestry Mission. Now that Russia is a market economy with constantly rising prices, there is hardly any hard currency left to send back to the North Korean authorities.”
“Recently, China has been offering the Russians more money for these felling operations, so the North Korean laborers have no choice but to go home,” Kim added, continuing, “In addition, the scale of the workforce and operations has been decreasing recently partly because those groups of workers who protest about wage delays and whatever else are all dispatched back to North Korea.”
“In the past there used to be trade missions in Tynda and Khabarovsk, but now they is only the one in Tynda, with seven logging businesses underneath it,” he said. “The Khabarovsk trade mission has recently been closed down, and there are now a total of just nine logging operations underway in all of Russia.”
The numbers of loggers has shrunk to “4,000 in Khabarovsk and 2,000 in other remote areas; a total that does not exceed 6,000,” Kim stated.
Even the remaining forestry mission in Tynda is not large, with a president, chief engineer and vice-director working in parallel with a Party chief secretary, organizational secretary and propaganda secretary. Although each secretary has two or three workers under him, even with the National Security Agency staff that keeps tabs on the activities of the workers included in the total, the mission remains small.
Elsewhere, however, there are actually tens of thousands of North Korean laborers in Russia working in fields including construction, agriculture and mining, including around 30% of the 6,000 nominally said to be involved in logging.
The activities of military-run enterprises are on the increase, too. Kim explained, “Following cooperation between the Russian Air Force and the North Korean Air Force Command, there are now farming operations going on around air fields. If you include the General Reconnaissance Bureau, North Korea has sent at least a few tens of thousands of people to Russia.”
Given the ever increasing number of laborers running away from their assigned workplaces, Kim speculated there could also be as many as 600 or more defectors residing in Russia.
“In 2006 the Ministry of Forestry sent some cadres all over Russia to try and lure defectors back home, but these people had grown accustomed to living in Russia and nobody listened. There were 598 at that time, so it’s probably even higher by now,” Kim said.
One other key reason why North Korea has been unsuccessful in its attempts to retrieve the defectors is that the Russian authorities take a sympathetic view of their plight. According to Kim, “Russia does not forcibly repatriate defectors in the same way as China, so they are able to marry and work there. The Russian police have been treating defectors as humanitarian refugees since 2005, aware that forcibly repatriated defectors risk public execution and that their families face punishment, too.”
Naturally though, surveillance and control of the laborers is as severe as it has always been at the logging sites. Every week the workers are forced to participate in Party-led activities including mutual criticism sessions. The authorities are trying to limit the number of defectors by encouraging them to spy on one another, and the NSA has an intricate system of investigation to maintain order. Nevertheless, workers are sufficiently unhappy with their situation that defections continue to occur.