Loggers dispatched to Russia by the North Korean government are becoming increasingly involved in the illegal drug trade there, according to sources in North Korea.
They said that loggers manufacture large quantities of methamphetamine in their workplaces in collaboration with Russian nationals with the aim of selling it to traffickers to earn extra money for remittance home to North Korea.
The loggers also use the drugs themselves to cope with the harshness of the conditions they labor under, the sources said, adding that some of them have become severely addicted.
One North Korean source, a railway employee from a working class area in Rajin-Sonbong, near the Tumen River, said several loggers had been arrested on drug charges in the last few months. The river serves as part of the boundary between Russia, North Korea, and China.
“In late August, 16 loggers were arrested at the same time on drug charges. On Oct. 16, six loggers were apprehended and transferred by a train bound for the Tumen River area,” the source said.
One of those apprehended—a photographer based near the Tumen River in North Korea’s Northern Hamgyeong province—was dispatched as a logger to Russia in May 2009.
According to the same source, four of the six North Korean loggers arrested Oct. 16 were charged in North Korea with producing philopon, a methamphetamine, and selling it to Russian drug dealers.
The remaining two were charged in North Korea with selling philopon to fellow loggers. North Korean security agents were dispatched to make the arrests, the source said, adding that all six face imprisonment in North Korea.
The source said that many people in North Korea are aware that loggers in Russia often produce illegal drugs and sell them to Russian dealers.
He said that North Koreans who produce illegal drugs commonly bribe Pyongyang officials in order to be sent to Russia as loggers, and use that cover to engage in drug manufacturing and trafficking.
The North Korean loggers engage in illegal drug operations in Russia and then exchange the money they earn through Chinese middlemen, the source said, eventually sending it as remittances to their families in North Korea.
As a result, an informal economy is on the rise, consisting largely of middlemen engaged in laundering and exchanging drug money, and of transporters carrying the money across the Tumen River into North Korea, the source said.
Turned to addiction
According to a second source who worked as a logger in Russia and currently resides in North Korea’s North Hamgyong province, some loggers have turned to using methamphetamines in order to cope with the strenuous work and harsh weather conditions of the Siberian logging industry.
“Loggers need drugs in order to cope with Russia’s terribly cold weather, the backbreaking labor, and the hunger,” he said.
“People specializing in producing drugs sell them for U.S. $30 per gram (0.04 ounces).”
The source said some loggers become addicted to drugs and return home with no money at all, despite all their hard labor, while others end up committing suicide.
He said loggers who manufacture drugs bribe North Korean security agents dispatched to their worksites to turn a blind eye to their illegal activities.
The higher quality drugs are sold to Russian and Chinese criminal gangs, while the lower-end drugs produced at logging sites are sold to North Korean loggers, he said.
According to the source, drugs manufactured by the loggers end up in the hands of Chinese trafficking gangs after being transported through Jiamusi city in China’s Heilongjiang province on their way to North Korea.
Jiamusi sits near the Sino-Russian border.
Both sources pointed out that although drug manufacturing and trafficking has subsided inside North Korea following a crackdown by authorities, the lucrative business has migrated to Russia and is now on the rise there within the North Korean logger community.
Earlier this month, a North Korean official speaking anonymously said Pyongyang will close 10 forestry offices in Russia that oversee North Koreans dispatched to work as loggers in Siberia.
The move followed Russia's refusal to renew North Korean logging permits, in favor of cheaper and more qualified labor from China and Southeast Asian nations.
Nuclear-armed North Korea relies heavily on foreign exchange from logging operations in Siberia, in the central and eastern portion of Russia. A significant part of the salaries of North Korean loggers goes into cash-starved Pyongyang's coffers.
At least 10,000 North Koreans are believed to be working as loggers in Siberia.
Most loggers receive less than 10 percent of the money Russian logging companies provide their North Korean handlers as salary.
Previous to 1995, North Korean authorities used to send food and snacks for loggers, in order to avoid spending hard currency on supplies.
However, after the food crisis worsened in North Korea, Russian authorities were asked to provide food for the loggers.
Because working conditions are poor and pay low, many North Korean laborers escape from their workplaces.
Reported by Moon Sung Hui for RFA’s Korean service. Translated by Grigore Scarlatoiu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.