A North Korean worker dispatched to Russia committed suicide last week—the latest in a series of incidents of suicide by North Korean migrants sent to Russian construction sites to generate foreign currency for Pyongyang.
The migrant had been working at a site in Kemerovo Oblast, on the southern edge of the Siberian plain, but sources say that he hanged himself on May 6 after being unable to save money and facing the prospect of returning home empty-handed.
“[The worker] was dispatched to Russia [earlier] this year by a company affiliated with the North Korean military set up to generate foreign cash,” said a Russian citizen of Korean descent in an interview with RFA’s Korean service.
North Korea is in desperate need of foreign currency as it faces sanctions put in place by the U.N. and U.S. aimed at depriving Pyongyang of resources that could be funneled into its nuclear program, underscoring the importance to the regime of any remaining means to acquire funds abroad.
“The North Korean workers dispatched to Kemerovo city wear uniforms and have all their meals together, so it is very easy to identify them. [That is how we know] one of them committed suicide,” said the source.
The source noted that there have been several similar suicides by North Korean workers, including one last month in Vladivostok. Harsh conditions imposed on exported laborers by the North Korean government require that workers hand over a large percentage of their pay to Pyongyang, and on top of that, the companies handling the workers sometimes take an additional cut.
The government’s cut is 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.
The source explained this forced “offering,” often leads to workers living in situations of great hardship and debt.
“After Kim Jong Un’s visit to Russia, workers expected North Korea to reduce the burden of the forced offerings so that they would have more income. But instead, the amount required in offerings has increased while available work has decreased, causing many workers to live in constant despair,” the source said.
The source said that despite the repeated incidents of suicide, “North Korean authorities have not improved the treatment of the dispatched workers.”
North Koreans are reportedly lured abroad by promises of higher pay. They dream of returning home with a large nest-egg and building a better life for themselves.
“In this case, the worker was about to return home empty-handed, so he became increasingly pessimistic [about his future]. After working so hard, he was not able to save any money,” said the source.
Sanctions have prevented the issuance of new working visas for North Koreans and mandated the return of all current North Korean workers abroad by the end of the year, but Pyongyang still appears to be able to send new workers to Russia on tourist or educational visas, which are only valid for a three-month period.
“In the past, [workers] were able to save money when they worked for three to five years on a working visa,” the source said.
“It is difficult to save money these days because every three months they have to spend their own money to leave and re-enter the country.”
Another source, also a Russian citizen of Korean descent, revealed more details about the late migrant worker.
“[He] was a young man in his thirties with a bright future. [North Korean] workers are now becoming increasingly angry at the authorities for recklessly exploiting them,” the second source said.
“North Korean authorities don’t care about the lives of the workers. They only cry about achieving goals and collecting all the money. It seems like a modern version of slave labor,” said the second source.
The second source also said that many of the dispatched North Korean workers were forced to work abroad as part of their mandatory military service.
“The North Korean workers at construction sites in Kemerovo all have long hair. They seem like ordinary workers but since the construction company is affiliated with the military, all the workers are active-duty soldiers,” the second source said.
“North Korea is in such desperate need of foreign cash, they disguise their soldiers as civilians and send them to overseas labor sites,” the second source said.
RFA attempted to contact the Oblast government and police in Kemerovo on Friday but received no reply.
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.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.