A North Korean laborer in Russia tells his story

North Korean workers at a construction site in Sovetskaya Gavan, Russia on July 25, 2016. (Induphotos / Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc)

The author recently interviewed a North Korean defector who, despite UN sanctions which forbid North Korea dispatching laborers overseas, spent several years near St. Petersburg working on construction projects. Kang, aged 47, arrived in South Korea in December 2022. Here are his responses in full.

I worked for a North Korean construction company in Russia from 2019 to 2022. I’d like to tell my story because I think these overseas workers like me live as slaves and that people should fight against this system. 

I was sent to Russia as a construction worker. That’s where I encountered COVID-19. For three years, except for a quarantine period of just over a fortnight, we operated at full capacity amidst COVID-19.

As forced labor is a normal part of life for us, people from all sorts of backgrounds – military officers, ordinary soldiers, actors, construction workers, teachers, IT technicians, artists – choose to work abroad.

Regardless of their profession, the average worker in North Korea earns around KPW 2,000 (USD 0.22 at the market rate) a month. That’s why they are prepared to quit professional jobs and go overseas as laborers.

Recently, to meet the demand for overseas workers, the regime started sending soldiers. There are two scenarios where soldiers are sent. One involves men who have served about eight years of their mandatory ten-year service and the other involves sending those who have completed their ten years. In both cases, they are sent without receiving formal discharge documents. That puts them in the vulnerable position of being recalled for military duty at any given time.

To get selected for overseas work, people must pay bribes of anywhere between USD 50 and 500, depending on where they live. In Pyongyang, it’s USD 50. In the provinces, it’s USD 500 or more. For business owners, the fee is USD 10,000. Payment has to be in US dollars.

To get selected for overseas work, people must pay bribes of anywhere between USD 50 and 500, depending on where they live.

My job in Russia was as a bricklayer building walls for private houses. Typically, my workmates and I would wake at 7am for breakfast and political education and start work at 8am. We often worked until around 2am, making it a 17-hour work day. We earned USD 2,000 to 3,000 a month.

This payment was appropriated by company officials and the regime. We pocketed USD 100 to 200 a month. In the end, after five years, a laborer would bring home less than USD 3,000.

This money was recorded in the books and amounts could be deducted for absences or decreased productivity during the five years.

You might ask why don’t they defect if conditions are so bad? 

It is important to note that defection is not an easy option. Mostly, they fear for the safety of their family back home. Families face severe consequences for the defection of one member. Despite this, there are a few who decide to defect as a last resort – realizing they can do nothing more for their families.

Even then, they find it difficult to go anywhere on their own, let alone plan how to escape. A secret policeman accompanied us even before we left North Korea. The message when we arrived in Russia was, “Don’t speak, don’t listen, don’t watch, don’t meet.” Then he confiscated our passports.

A secret policeman accompanied us even before we left North Korea. The message when we arrived in Russia was, “Don’t speak, don’t listen, don’t watch, don’t meet.” Then he confiscated our passports.

Essentially, he forbade us from watching, listening to any foreign broadcasts, including those from Russia, and instructed us not to meet or talk to any foreigners. From the airport we were taken directly to the work site. 

Russian building sites are typically ringed with high fences and guarded by armed security, making it impossible to enter or exit without a pass.

On the day we arrived, our construction site passes were also collected. Thus, we were trapped within a double or triple layer of surveillance and fences. The rules about no media and no talking with non-Koreans were strictly enforced.

Where I was stationed, I had friends who in five years hadn’t once stepped inside a Russian shop. This strict control prevents people from defecting regardless of their grievances.

North Korean citizens and overseas laborers are normal people. Where I was, workers craved access to outside information. The company deducted 2,000 rubles (USD 30) from their wages and gave it back to them as pocket money for cigarettes or liquor. They would save this money and secretly ask other foreign workers to help them buy cheap second-hand phones. 

When the security officer found out about this, he summoned all of us and made the man who had bought the phone smash it himself with a rock. This served the same purpose as public executions do back home and instilled fear in everyone else.

Despite this, though, people continued to buy smartphones. 

Abuse of the overseas laborers in Russia is grave.

At the company where I worked, one man named Jeon, who had health issues, was not very productive. One lunchtime, the boss approached him. “Is the rice going down your throat? Stop just thinking about eating and do your work properly,” he said, all the while hitting him over the head.

Another common form of abuse is to keep the unit price hidden from workers. For example, if the payment for laying a cubic meter of bricks is 2,000 rubles, the workers are told they are to receive 1,000 rubles.

One day, the boss came into the dining hall while the workers were eating and tipped over one man’s bowl and shouted, “What do you think you know if you know the unit price?” He kept on humiliating the worker for an hour. It seems that the worker mentioned to someone else that the unit price was 2,000 rubles. 

During my time in Russia, such incidents occurred countless times.

Recent cases in China are shedding light on the fact that we basically had no rights. The Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported that 2,000 North Korean workers dispatched to China’s Jilin Province rioted in mid-January over unpaid wages.

While I cannot confirm this report, it is likely to be true. That said, such events are rare under the North Korean regime and are unlikely to recur. Those involved will have already been dragged back to North Korea. Their punishment will be severe. Their families may have been relocated to remote areas or even sent to political prison camps, defectors say.

I went to Russia to provide for my family. However, realizing that I could no longer earn money due to Kim Jong-un’s greed and the exploitation by officials and company bosses, I decided that opposing the dictatorship and fighting for the liberation of North Korea’s slaves was a hundred times more worthy way to spend my life.

I was able to escape with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Moscow. I am now a citizen of South Korea. I fight for the liberation of North Korean slaves.

When we turn a blind eye to the victims of Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship, we must remember that we could also become victims of someone else’s dictatorship.

I believe that unhappiness spreads. When we turn a blind eye to others’ unhappiness, it easily spreads to us. When we fail to stand up for victims of crime, we can easily become victims ourselves. When we see disaster befall others and do nothing, we are more likely to become victims ourselves. When we turn a blind eye to the victims of Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship, we must remember that we could also become victims of someone else’s dictatorship.

I think it’s my duty to disclose the facts about the slavery system of North Korea as one of the North Korean defectors who experienced it. Thank you for paying attention.”

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