Many of the laborers recently selected for overseas assignments are soldiers, Daily NK has learned.

The selection of such a large number of soldiers is likely part of the North Korean government’s efforts to earn as much foreign currency as possible.

A source in Pyongyang told Daily NK on May 5 that most of the soldiers currently receiving education related to their upcoming overseas assignments are current soldiers, including those as low in rank as private.

In fact, 90% of the soldiers are privates, while the remaining 10% are military officers who will manage them.

North Korea’s leadership is expanding the number of soldiers being sent abroad because they can earn more money for state coffers compared to ordinary civilian workers.

Civilian workers “donate” various amounts of money into the country’s “loyalty fund” depending on what they do abroad; however, generally speaking, about 60% of their monthly wages go into state coffers.

Low-ranking soldiers, for their part, do not expect to get paid a monthly wage. In fact, all of the foreign currency abroad they earn is given to the state, except for a minimal amount set aside for living expenses.

What this means is that more than 95% of their wages flow into state coffers.

These soldier-laborers are generally young men aged between 17 and 26. They are sent to dangerous work sites that require intense levels of manual labor, which means their wages are higher than civilian laborers.

Soldier-laborers, furthermore, believe that it is natural to work without pay, so they express few qualms about what is essentially forced labor without compensation. Moreover, even if they are discontented about the labor and pay conditions, they are not likely to express such discontent openly.

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

On the other hand, the recruitment process for soldier-laborers provides no opportunities for North Korean officials to obtain bribes, mainly due to the fact that military units nominate soldiers from their ranks for overseas work.

The military also handles costs related to transport of the soldiers abroad, including plane tickets. Soldiers thus have no costs they need to pay while heading to their overseas work site.

The source told Daily NK that the soldiers live in accordance with the North Korean military’s organizational system even during their stints abroad. Terms used to refer to military units and titles are slightly changed to reflect the non-military nature of their work, however.

The Seventh General Bureau and Eighth General Bureau are the main organizations that recruit soldiers for overseas work. Soldiers selected by these organizations for work abroad are put under the military-run Chulhyun or Reungra trading companies. This year, soldiers will reportedly be sent to construction sites, livestock farms, and lumber camps overseas.

According to the source, even those soldiers recruited by the military’s engineers corps find themselves working a wide-range of different industries depending on what kind of contract their trading company has concluded with overseas companies and organizations.

Daily NK understands that soldiers will soon head to China, Russia, Mongolia, Syria, Qatar, Egypt, Kuwait, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates.

Some of the soldiers will be sent to highly dangerous work sites – such as nuclear power plant construction sites – in Egypt and Iran.

“Soldiers are considered the property of the state, so the leadership takes away all of their wages except enough to provide them with accommodations and food, and despite the hard work they do to earn money abroad,” the source said. “Young privates tend to look forward to going abroad at least at first, but in the past there have been frequent cases of low-ranking soldiers braving the risks of escape because the [working conditions] were so bad.”

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Seulkee Jang is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to