With North Korean authorities soon set to dispatch North Korean laborers to Russia, some applicants are apparently bribing officials to pass the physical or faking results. This is causing a stir. North Korean authorities focused on selecting healthy adult males for dispatch abroad, but many of the workers are reportedly so underweight as to classify as malnourished.

According to a Daily NK source in Pyongyang on Wednesday, North Korean authorities had been training the workers selected to be sent to logging camps in Russia. However, the Overseas Construction Guidance Department, which oversees the selection of the workers, received a complaint that the first batch of workers included applicants physically unqualified for the work.

The person who filed the complaint reportedly accused an acquaintance of passing the physical by faking the results after being excluded from the first round of selections, despite paying a bribe.

The applicant was reportedly a man in his 40s who took the physical with lumps of metal in his clothes to boost his weight.

The man passed his first physical, which set 60 kilograms as the “passing weight.” However, a physical after the complaint revealed the man to weigh 48 kilograms, mortifying everyone involved.

Because of this, the Overseas Construction Guidance Department ordered everyone selected to be weighed once again. It is also investigating whether applicants faked other parts of the physical, too.

North Korean authorities reportedly plan to exclude from overseas deployments applicants who weigh much less in their second physicals than their first. To the cadre departments of the provincial party chapters that recommended the applicants in question, the authorities plan to restrict or cancel their qualifications to recommend workers for overseas service.

A construction site in Russia photographed in June 2019. North Korean workers reportedly were working there at the time. / Image: Daily NK

In the past, North Korean authorities paid no heed to body weight when selecting workers to send overseas. As long as they were free of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, they were considered acceptable. However, the source said the authorities are now making height and weight important criteria, sensing the eyes and ears of the world upon them.

They worry that doubt would fall on the food situation in North Korea or the nutritional state of North Koreans should Pyongyang send overseas workers who appear too thin or weak.

“Even within the party, at first, they thought thin people were fine. All that was important was that they went and made money,” said the source. “Nowadays, however, if they send people who are too weak, in foreign countries, they’ll ask what kind of prisoners we have sent.

“Even the state now considers global attention to be fairly important when sending North Koreans overseas,” he added.

The problem is that it appears many of the applicants resorted to similar chicanery to pass the physical.

About 10% of the total applicants failed the weight qualification during the second test, according to the source. 

If over 10% of even volunteers for overseas work — by definition, adult males capable of physical labor who are not so desperately poor that they skip meals — are underweight, the percentage of ordinary people suffering malnutrition must be much higher.

The source said the authorities conduct physicals on workers to be sent overseas every year, but never have the volunteers suffered from such malnutrition. He said the number of people suffering from the worst standards of malnutrition are growing over time.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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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.