North Korean workers wait for a flight to Pyongyang at the airport in Vladivostok, Russia, in December 2019. (Courtesy of Kang Dong Wan, professor at Dong-A University)

North Korean authorities have begun replacing managers sent to Russia to monitor and control North Korean workers in the country, Daily NK has learned. This appears to be a move to prevent North Korean workers from defecting and to increase foreign currency earnings.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Daily NK source in North Korea said on June 5 that the cadre department of the cabinet and the defense ministry received an order from the Central Committee in mid-May to replace the officials managing North Korean workers in Russia.

In the order, the Central Committee instructed that construction company presidents, party secretaries and security guidance officers deemed problematic should be repatriated first.

In particular, the authorities called for a gradual replacement, starting with regions with large numbers of North Korean workers, to prevent possible abandonment of workplaces or chaos if the leading workers were replaced all at once.

The source said that the North Korean authorities had begun replacing managers “because North Koreans in Russia continue to try to defect” and that “Russia is where North Koreans most often try to flee or go missing.”

“Another reason is that more and more work teams are not making their foreign currency quota payments properly,” he said. “[The replacement] is part of implementing the party’s policy to eliminate these problems as soon as possible.”

New officials selected for deployment in Russia

At the same time that they ordered the repatriations, North Korean authorities also began selecting new officials to send to Russia.

Many officials want to go abroad to supervise North Korean workers, as overseas assignments provide many opportunities for officials to earn foreign currency on their own. However, the North Korean authorities are excluding from this round of selection candidates with previous experience in overseas management of workers.

If, out of necessity, the authorities must select someone with previous experience, that candidate must provide a reasonable and concrete reason for going and submit recommendations from eight or more people from his or her employment agency.

“[The authorities] are being pretty strict in this round of selecting officials to go to Russia,” he said. “It seems they want to make the officials more responsible for managing the workers where they go.”

In fact, the agencies that have begun selecting officials to be sent to Russia report their entire selection process to the Central Committee, which thoroughly reviews the reports to ensure that the selection process is free of corruption. That is, the Central Committee scrutinizes the process to ensure that the agencies are not selecting unqualified candidates in return for bribes or other misconduct.

Given that the North Korean authorities are moving quickly and in a coordinated fashion to select officials to be repatriated from Russia and to select new officials to be sent in their place, a wholesale replacement of officials overseeing North Korean workers in Russia is likely to take place soon.

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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