A construction worker in Russia in the time of COVID

A North Korean worker at a construction site in Sovetskaya Gavan, Russia on Oct 10, 2016. (Induphotos / Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc)

In Part 2 of his story, Kang, a North Korean laborer in Russia who escaped to South Korea at the end of 2022, recounts his experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Part 1 is here.

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but comedy in long-shot,” Charlie Chaplin said. That’s what my experience of COVID-19 restrictions in Russia over the new year of 2020 was like.

As the pandemic swept across the world, Kim Jong-un closed the borders. We would be told in Russia that he had declared that people who caught the disease were “traitors” who had “not followed pandemic prevention measures.”

“From now on, you must be more careful,” the North Korean secret policeman on our work site would tell us. “You must follow the prevention rules thoroughly, or you will get infected and betray the nation.” Nutrition and existing health conditions clearly didn’t factor. I heard the words “it’s ridiculous” come out of some of my friends’ mouths. 

Here’s how we were told that. 

Russia recognized the COVID threat in December 2019. It was still in Wuhan, but they worried it would spread. At that time, we heard about an outbreak of pneumonia in China from supervisors and foreign workers. We never imagined it might turn us into traitors. 

The North Korean embassy in Moscow relayed repeated instructions to us about prevention and control measures. Our boss and the party secretary always concluded with a warning about the seriousness of the situation. They said we should not talk to foreigners, shake hands with them, or even face them directly.

We wondered if these lectures were really aimed at preventing COVID or merely an excuse to block interactions with foreigners. Looking back, it seems Kim Jong-un took advantage of the situation to tighten controls.

So, this was how we went into the new year on January 1, 2020.

For Russians, New Year celebrations last about ten days. Security guards anticipated an easy time watching over empty construction sites. But the Russian guards on our site had to work. North Korean workers only got January 1 and 2 off. 

As you can imagine, the two days of the New Year were truly a golden holiday for us. We never imagined we would have to spend it on the streets. 

After finishing work on December 31, we headed to the hotel where we were going to spend the holiday. We were in high spirits. After checking in and getting assigned rooms, some just couldn’t resist the temptation to drink.

We were used to doing this after a hard day’s work. However, Russian hotels have rules about drinking. If someone is caught drinking outside of their room, they risk being kicked out.

Predictably, once the alcohol started flowing in their system, the stress, built up because we were forbidden from complaining, exploded. One man in our group began loudly venting.

“Damn it, it’s New Year today, so why can’t we even drink?” he shouted. He was, in fact, already drunk, but it seemed as if he was extremely annoyed by the rule against drinking. “We can’t even sing. What kind of prisoners are we? Huh, I’ve already drunk all I want, so I am good. I don’t need any more. But I need to sing something today. I’m going to sing. I’ll do whatever I want.”

Some of the others in the same room joined in. “Yeah, what kind of prisoners are we?” they said. The restraints that had been tightened over two years abroad had finally snapped.

North Korean songs echoed loudly in the Russian quiet night sky.

At 1 am, hotel security guards kicked our entire group out.

We trudged back in the cold to our regular accommodation on the building site. There we found another unexpected surprise. The security guards wouldn’t let us in. “Come back on January 3,” they said.

We contacted our company, but there was nothing they could do either. That was how we ended up spending New Year’s Day 2020 on the streets with the specter of COVID-19 looming.

We were finally able to get into our onsite accommodations on the evening of January 2. 

The three top bosses came to the site and severely reprimanded the intoxicated worker and his mates. 

We referred to the director of the company as Number One. The party secretary and the secret policeman were Two and Three. We had to call them that so foreigners wouldn’t know their actual roles. Number Three delivered the solemn directive from Kim Jong-un. Anyone who contracted the disease due to insufficient compliance with COVID-19 prevention measures would be treated as a “traitor to the nation,” he said.

Everyone was dumbfounded. Nobody can reject a “national directive” sanctioned by Kim Jong-un. We faced a situation where we could be classified as traitors. 

When even advanced countries’ prevention systems couldn’t stop the pandemic from spreading, how could we be sure we wouldn’t get infected, especially as we were working in such a harsh environment?

The message basically was, “Work all night. Don’t get infected. If you do, you’re a traitor.” We were not allowed to stop work until 1 or 2 a.m. 

Some men started to think it might be better to catch COVID. They started working without masks and without following the rules. 

Fortunately, in our company, none of us became traitors. But I did hear of cases in other companies. They were quietly dealt with within each company. I don’t know how many there were. 

Nobody was executed, despite Kim’s order. Instead, they were discreetly transferred to infectious disease wards in Russian hospitals. There, many quietly passed away with no one at their side.

We often found ourselves thinking, “At this rate, I might very well get infected and end up buried as a traitor under the snow of a foreign land.”

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