A sudden increase in the number of North Korean sailors in central Vladivostok is making locals in the Russian Far East city curious, as it coincides with a major drop in the number of North Korean workers dispatched there.
Pyongyang has routinely sent workers to Russia to earn desperately needed foreign cash, but fewer and fewer North Korean migrants live in the area as Moscow makes efforts to comply with U.N. sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of resources that could be funneled into its nuclear program.
According to the sanctions, no new working visas can be issued to North Koreans and all North Korean citizens working abroad must return home by the end of this year.
“It’s not easy to meet North Korean workers on the streets or local markets anymore,” said a Russian citizen of Korean descent in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on Wednesday.
“But [even though the workers are gone,] crewmembers from North Korean ships roaming around in groups is a very common sight these days,” the source said.
The supply of North Korean workers has been constant in North Korea until recently, according to the source.
“North Korean workers dispatched to Russia always used to return home to renew their three-month short-term visa, then return to Russia.”
Short-term visa runs usually meant a trip back into North Korean territory to complete a visa renewal, followed by a return to Vladivostok shortly thereafter. In some cases, the exit from and return to Russia takes only a few hours, as the worker could cross the border, complete the renewal process, and return immediately.
“But for some reason, the ones who went back before their visa expired haven’t returned in months,” the source said.
The source, who runs a restaurant in Vladivostok, said, “[Back then] I could easily meet North Korean workers whenever I went to the store or to the marketplace to buy ingredients.”
The restaurant manager the North Korean workers were easily identified because they stood out.
“[They] dress differently and they look very different so they are easy to recognize. They usually come to the market to buy cheap vegetables or some prepared foods, but I don’t see them so often these days,” the source said.
On the heels of the recent summit between Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the source said the low numbers of workers is surprising. Workers’ numbers fell off even more after the summit.
“The local construction companies expected that more North Korean workers would be dispatched to Russia after the summit, but [what we see] is the exact opposite,” said the source.
Another source, also a Russian citizen of Korean descent from Vladivostok, said residents are noticing the uptick in North Korean sailors, but they find it puzzling.
“The locals are curious as to why there are so many sailors now, but the workers aren’t coming back,” the second source said.
“I asked the sailors that I met at the market why their ship is in Vladivostok, but they wouldn’t answer all my questions, including the ship’s cargo and destination. People want to know,” said the second source.
The construction companies who depend on North Korean labor also want answers, the second source said.
“There is more than one company waiting for the North Korean workers to come back from their visa runs. These are the companies that paid out wages to the workers in advance, believing their promises of a hasty return, but they’re not coming back,” said the second source.
The second source explained that North Korean workers are better at their jobs than locals or foreign workers from elsewhere, so companies will go out of their way to ensure they return. This is why they agree to pay their wages in advance, to secure their service with the company.
But the second source could only speculate about the fate of those who have not returned from visa runs.
“We don’t know right now whether those workers were dispatched somewhere else in Russia, besides Vladivostok, but I’d say it’s really unlikely they went somewhere else because they received their wages in advance,” the second source said.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.