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North Korean workers in Russia (Kang Dong Wan, Dong-A University)

North Korean authorities have recently coaxed North Korean workers in Russia into making financial contributions to the Workers’ Party. In particular, North Korea is threatening workers who have not paid “party funds” for several months with forced repatriation, leading to speculation that rail service between North Korea and Russia will soon restart.

According to a source in Russia on Wednesday, North Korea’s External Construction Bureau issued an order regarding party funds to North Korean workers in Russia on Monday. 

The order called on individual workers to pay their allotted party funds on a fixed date every month. It also warned that workers would be brought home if they missed payments for four or more months.

North Korea suspended train service with Russia after closing its borders in January 2020 as part of quarantine efforts against COVID-19. Since then, it has not been bringing its workers home from Russia. North Korean workers who should have returned home when their visas expired have continued to work overseas as illegal residents.

The order threatening to repatriate workers who fail to pay their party contributions has reportedly sparked talk among the workers themselves that international train service between North Korea and Russia will restart.

Workers speculate that the authorities issued the order on repatriations because they plan to restart train service sometime before October, or four months from now.

Moreover, the source said the order partially allowed workers to move to other regions in Russia outside their places of residence.

North Korean authorities tightened controls on worker movement and intensified surveillance after an officer with the Enemy Collapse Sabotage Bureau deployed to Russia was caught trying to seek asylum, in addition to COVID-19 concerns.

Essentially, North Korea conditionally relaxed travel controls for workers, as long as they are moving to earn foreign currency.

With North Korea permitting workers dispatched to Russia to move between regions, North Korean workers will apparently begin engaging in several kinds of work. Some North Koreans also believe that as interregional movement expands, North Korean workers will have greater opportunities to run off or defect.

“Even Pyongyang knows that if laborers move around more, they could also run off to a foreign country [defect], but it seems they believe that securing party funds is more important now,” the source said. 

Workers dispatched to Russia are reportedly tasked with paying USD 7,000 to USD 10,000 in party funds a year.

North Korean laborers sent to Russia usually work as loggers or construction workers. However, this is the low season for logging, so workers are reportedly making little money. 

Recently, many North Korean workers in Russia have been earning foreign currency by collecting and selling wild greens, mushrooms and medicinal herbs.

Translated by David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

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