Although the US formally requested the submission of interim reports on the repatriation of North Korean laborers working abroad to UN member nations, sources on the ground report that North Korean workers continue to flow into Russia. Unlike China, where they are using working visas, those entering Russia are thought to be using industrial trainee or student visas.
“Recently, there have been many North Korean workers coming in to Russia. They are arriving at Khabarovsk Station via Tumangang Station. North Korean workers are usually dispatched to Khabarovsk and Ussuriysk and most of them are construction workers,” a source familiar with local affairs told Daily NK.
According to the source, a considerable number of new laborers are being deployed to Russian construction sites as well as some factories and logging sites.
In an interim report submitted to the United Nations in March, Russia said that the number of North Korean workers staying in Russia has declined from 30,023 at the end of 2017 to 11,490 at the end of 2018. Although the number with officially granted visas may have declined, it is believed that these new workers are entering Russia using methods other than a work visa, such as student or temporary stay visas.
It has been reported that in addition to the hard labor, those working in Russia have poor working conditions. They are cooking and sleeping at the same construction site at which they are working.
“North Korean workers are working at a building that is attached to the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok’s Russky Island, and work an average of 15 hours per day from 5:00 am to 9:00 pm or even until 11:00 pm,” he said.
“The daylight is long these days in Russia, so they are working until late in the night without lighting. North Korean workers are really angry because they are worked like dogs. And even though they are working so hard, they do not have much left after paying $1200 dollars to the North Korean company they work for.”
Even under such dire circumstances, North Korean laborers still value being sent to Russia because they can make significantly more money than they can in North Korea.
Some of the highly skilled North Korean workers who have been working in Russia for more than three years are said to be finding their own work under the condition that they pay $1000~$1300 dollars to the state enterprise as a loyalty contribution.
“Those with good skills are freelancing. Some even make $2000~$3000 dollars a month,” a separate source in Russia told Daily NK.
“Russian companies also prefer North Korean workers. Their wages are cheap and they are skilled and work very fast. That is why Russian construction companies prefer to hire them.”
Currently in Russia, there are about 23 North Korean enterprises including Rungrado, Namgyong, Cholsan Trading Company, and Number 17 Construction Company that manage North Korean workers. “A Khabarovsk-based North Korean trading company manages about 2000 North Korean workers,” said the source.
However, it has been reported that recently-dispatched North Korean workers in Russia cannot freely move or contact the outside world as they are under tighter surveillance.
This is similar to circumstances in north-eastern China, where many North Koreans have been dispatched. This could be to avoid criticisms from the international community ahead of the complete repatriation of North Korea’s overseas workers due to occur on December 22, as stipulated by a UN Security Council resolution.
The number of freight trains carrying food and industrial products from Russia to North Korea has also reportedly increased since the North Korea-Russia summit. One analysis suggests that after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in April, Russia’s exports to North Korea increased to levels seen before the sanctions.
*Translated by Yongmin Lee