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)

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world in 2020, North Korean construction workers on Russia’s Sakhalin Island were forced into endless, precarious efforts to earn foreign currency, unable to return home after North Korean authorities sealed the border. During this time, they suffered extreme hardship and serious threats to their health.

In mid-2020, tragedy struck the North Korean workers in Sakhalin, as several of them died from COVID-19 and other diseases.

Later, the local North Korean construction company ordered the surviving workers to pay USD 10 per person as condolence money to the families of their deceased colleagues. However, the money – which the workers collected penny by penny – was used to fill the construction company’s foreign currency quota.

When one worker complained to his superiors, he was severely beaten and even locked up for a while.

North Korean workers in Sakhalin lived under strict controls, violence, and other atrocities, just as they had before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Things got even worse in 2021. The construction company in Sakhalin asked Pyongyang to lower its cash quota, citing reduced worker attendance and rising medical costs as more workers fell ill with COVID-19. However, North Korean authorities ignored the request and ordered the company to ensure full payment of its quota.

To the North Korean authorities, the workers were little more than tools to earn foreign currency.

The workers worked to ensure payment of the foreign currency quota despite suffering severe violations of their labor and health rights, including long hours in appalling conditions during the pandemic, violations of their freedom of information and travel, wage extortion, and failure to provide proper treatment for illness.

Company showed no compassion toward workers

This company experienced twice as many worker deaths in 2021 than the average of five to ten deaths from accidents or illness per year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company took up collections after each death, claiming it needed to send condolence money to the bereaved. The surviving workers bore the entire burden.

But even after the COVID-19 pandemic, the families never saw a cent of this condolence money, which was instead used to make up shortfalls in the construction company’s foreign exchange quota.

“The company was like a vampire, sucking the money out of the workers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said a Sakhalin resident familiar with the company’s situation. “The problems facing workers here in Russia have not yet been resolved, and even now workers are forced to make sacrifices to earn foreign currency.”

The tragedy of the North Korean workers in Sakhalin demonstrates the extent to which the North Korean authorities will trample on the human rights of their own people in order to secure foreign currency.

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.

Please send any comments or questions about this article to

Read in Korean