A North Korean worker in Russia has committed suicide at a construction site in Vladivostok last week, driven by excessive pressure to hand over a large cut of his earnings to the regime, RFA’s Korean Service has learned.
North Korean workers sent abroad are exploited by the regime of Kim Jong Un as sources of foreign cash. For the privilege of working and living abroad they must give a large “offering” to the North Korean government.
An ethnic Korean source in Russia told RFA that the apparent suicide occurred on April 8, when the worker jumped off a tall building his company was building in the city.
“[The worker] was in his late thirties. He had been dispatched to Russia four years ago by an Office No. 39-affiliated External Construction Guidance Bureau,” said the source.
Office No. 39 is the colloquial name of Central Committee Bureau 39 of the Workers' Party of Korea, which according to a 2010 New York Times article, “is a shadowy party organization which raises hard currency to buy fine liquor, exotic food and luxury cars for cronies of North Korea’s [leadership].”
“Due to the authorities’ mandates for individual offerings and because high-ranking officials from [the worker’s] company had continually exploited him, he was unable to save any money despite working diligently for the past four years,” the source said.
“This made him despondent, [causing him to] jump off the 12-storey building on the construction site,” the source added.
The individual offerings that North Korean workers abroad must make are not insignificant—A CNN report from January 2018 cited U.S. diplomats as saying that up to 80% of overseas workers’ earnings are funneled back to Pyongyang.
For the construction worker in Vladivostok, making ends meet, let alone saving any money at all was likely a struggle under these terms.
“[Construction workers] have to make monthly offerings of 50,000 rubles, which is about $800,” the source said.
But construction is largely seasonal work, meaning employment is not steady throughout the year.
“They usually fall behind on their offerings during the winter season because there aren’t enough projects for them to find [stable] work,” the source said, adding, “They have to take care of the outstanding balance somehow in the spring, so that means working 14 or 16-hour days.”
But the source also explained that in addition to their offering to the government, the workers must make offerings on top of that to fund Pyongyang’s high-priority tourist construction projects that the government has been touting as the economic revitalization of the country.
“They have to make extra offerings for things like the Samjiyon, Wonsan-Kalma, and capital construction projects on top of their regular offering. Even after all that they still have to pay for rent, utilities and food, so there’s no money left for cigarettes or daily necessities, not even for soap,” the source said.
“Meanwhile, they have to bribe their company president and other high-ranking officials to keep working in Russia. So how can they save money? The worker who killed himself was only able to save about over the four years,” the source said.
Another source, from Vladivostok, said mounting financial frustration appeared to drive the man to suicide.
“He wanted to make money, but it wasn’t easy. He wanted to return home, but he lost hope because there was nothing left for him after toiling for four years,” the source said.
“People are heartbroken because he was wearing shabby work clothes and ripped shoes. A few days [before the suicide], he called in sick but the president of the company forced him to pay 50 rubles [80 cents] as a penalty for taking the day off. People who knew [the worker] are full of anger,” the source said.
The source said that suicides by North Korean construction workers has recently become a common occurrence, especially in winter, when they are more likely to fall behind on their offering payments.
“The excessive burden from the national offering is a problem, but exploitation by the officials of the companies [they work for] is an even bigger problem,” the source said.
“Workers who can’t withstand [the stress and pressure] attempt to escape or try to kill themselves,” said the source.
Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the suicide when contacted by RFA on Friday, saying that the incident was not within the ministry’s jurisdiction.
In June 2016, RFA’s Korean Service reported on the harsh conditions endured by North Korean workers overseas, saying that on average seven workers were killed per month since January 2015.
That report detailed an incident similar to last week’s suicide in which a North Korean construction worker in Vladivostok doused himself with flammable liquids, lit himself on fire, jumped off the side of the building and hung himself. Russian police said that suicide was due to “intensive labor and economic difficulties.”
The export of North Korean labor was banned under a December 2017 UN Security Council unanimous vote to approve sanctions on North Korea aimed at depriving the Kim Jong Un regime of $500 million per year on the wages of an estimated 93,000 North Koreans working overseas.
The sanctions, aimed at depriving North Korea of cash to fund its prohibited nuclear weapons and missile programs, called for a freeze on new work permits, and would require host countries to send North Korean workers back by the end of 2019. Many countries in Europe and Africa reportedly complied early.
According to CNN, in January 2018 an estimated 50,000 North Koreans were working in Russia – many in construction – in what the U.S. Department of State called “slave-like” labor.
Russia voted to approve the 2017 U.N. sanctions, but CNN quoted a Moscow-based Asia-Pacific expert as saying that these were approved grudgingly, and only after they were made as “toothless” as possible.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.