North Korea Steps Up Export of Workers to Russia to Boost Foreign Exchange

2014-04-25
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North Korean workers walk home after finishing a shift at a nearby factory in Sinuiju, Dec. 15, 2012.
AFP

Cash-starved North Korea has rapidly increased the number of workers it dispatches to Russia and widened the scope of jobs they could take up in the neighboring country in a bid to diversify away from its traditional key market China, according to sources.

But the selection process has been tightened to prevent North Korean defections, the sources said, adding that some officials were accepting bribes from desperate prospective workers to cash in on the new procedures.

Until recently, North Korea has been sending its workers mostly to its key ally neighbor China to draw foreign exchange to support its impoverished economy.

But of late Pyongyang has stepped up its dispatch of labor to Russia, where wages are higher, according to the sources, citing the hard-line communist regime’s attempt to diversify its sources of foreign revenue.

A resident of North Hamgyong province who recently visited China told RFA’s Korean Service that going by the current pace, "dispatched workers are recruited more for Russia than for China.”

"In the past, the dispatched workers for Russia were mostly loggers,” the source said. “However, in recent years, the occupation pool for the dispatched workers has become very diverse."

The pool of workers has widened to include construction workers, seamstresses, and farming sector workers, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The source said that higher wages and a three-year duration of dispatch were among factors attracting North Koreans to travel to Russia to work.

'Rigorous' selection

However, according to the source, the North Korean authorities are conducting a “very rigorous” process for selection of workers to prevent defections.

“It appears to be very difficult to become a dispatched worker to Russia,” the source said.

Among those not eligible to apply to work in Russia are bachelors and spinsters, married couples without children, those with relatives in South Korea, China or Japan, and those whose relatives have defected, sources said, identifying them as among potential defectors.

One woman who wanted to become a seamstress had her application rejected because her loyalty was in question, a source living in North Pyongan province said.

"During the interview, the interviewer asked her why she wanted to go to Russia, and she answered innocently by saying that she [wanted] to visit a foreign country just once,” the source said.

"She failed because it seemed she lacks loyalty to the party and the country.”

Yet the source said that another woman, who heard that the seamstresses can earn U.S. $50 per month, offered to surrender nearly her whole anticipated annual salary to the authorities for a three-year work contract in Russia.

"The corruption of the executives in the selection process of workers is very serious" the source said. 

It is believed that among workers dispatched to Russia, construction technicians earn the highest salaries, sources said.

According to recently released figures, Chinese authorities granted 93,300 work visas to North Koreans in 2013—a roughly 17 percent gain from the prior year.

Easing restrictions

Last month, Russia and North Korea agreed to ease visa procedures as part of an agreement to boost bilateral trade, which also includes settling payments in Russian rubles as well providing for Russian access to proposed special economic zones in North Korea, Russia's Far East Development Ministry said.

The move came following a visit of a Russian delegation to North Korea for talks in conjunction with the 65th anniversary of a bilateral cooperation agreement.

Nuclear-armed North Korea has been relying traditionally 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, according to 2010 figures.

At that time, it was reported that most loggers receive less than 10 percent of the money Russian logging companies provide their North Korean handlers as salary.

Reported by Joon-ho Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Min Seon Kim. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.