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 source

The officials sent to manage North Korean workers overseas are extorting workers’ wages worse than ever. North Korean overseas workers feel discouraged and oppressed as they take home no more than 40% of what they are supposed to earn.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Daily NK source in Russia said Monday that “A,” a construction worker who was repatriated to North Korea late last month, received five years of back pay from his supervisor.

All he received just before returning to the North was USD 2,000. This was for five years of construction work in Russia since 2019, during which he did not receive a single payment.

Because he was a military construction worker serving in Russia instead of in the army, “A” expected to earn much less than civilian workers. But it was still a disappointingly small sum for five years of working day and night in terrible conditions.

North Korean workers sent abroad do not receive a monthly salary, but a lump sum payment just before or just after they return to the North. Instead, they certify how much they have earned each month by signing a monthly statement showing how much they have saved up to that point.

“A” saw that he had saved more than USD 5,000 as recently as his April statement, just before he returned to the North.

Military construction workers sent to Russia contractually earn USD 100 per month, but when it came time to settle the account, the managing official paid less than 40% of what “A” was supposed to receive.

When the workers asked why they were receiving so much less than they were promised, they were told that Socialist Patriotic Youth League fees, food and lodging costs, medical expenses, and airfare back to North Korea were deducted from their earnings.

North Korean trading companies reportedly deducted USD 500 per worker for return airfare from Vladivostok, Russia to Pyongyang.

North Korean trading companies often receive more than USD 3,000 per month per North Korean worker from Russian construction companies, but senior officials overseeing military construction workers take more than 95% of this, the source said.

“The monthly government quota per construction worker is usually USD 3,000,” the source said. “North Korean workers, especially military construction workers, are more expensive because they are stronger than ordinary workers, so they work intensively and can complete buildings quickly.”

North Korean trading companies typically receive between USD 25,000 and USD 30,000 to build a house or small commercial building in three months. Because three or four workers are assigned to such projects, if the money went entirely to the workers, they would receive at least USD 2,080 each.

However, the trading companies pay the workers only USD 100 per month and further extort them by deducting living expenses. They are also supposed to pay the government USD 250 per month.

The trading company officials who supervise the military construction workers are army field officers with the rank of major or above. These military officials steal their men’s wages. However, because military construction workers go overseas in lieu of military service, they cannot protest or complain about their meager wages.

In response, the military construction workers grumble that they are “little more than money-printing machines” and that “they would never have come if they knew they’d make so little for working almost to death,” the source said.

Meanwhile, North Korean authorities are rushing to replace the workers sent to Russia.

Unlike in the past, when North Korea sent workers to Russia in small groups using circuitous routes to avoid detection by the international sanctions regime, the North is now sending large numbers of them relatively freely on flights as Pyongyang and Moscow grow closer.

Daily NK works with a network of sources living in North Korea, China, and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous for security reasons. For more information about Daily NK’s network of reporting partners and information-gathering activities, please visit our FAQ page here.

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