A large number of North Korean workers are returning home from Vladivostok, Russia, where they had been deployed for the past three months to earn foreign currency for the North Korean regime while getting paid several times what they could doing the same jobs in their home country.
Local sources are unsure if the withdrawal is a matter of the expiration of their temporary visas, or if it comes at the request of the Russian government as it attempts to comply with U.N. sanctions aimed at depriving Pyongyang of resources that could be funneled into its missile and nuclear programs.
Under those sanctions, no new work visas are to be issued to North Koreans to work abroad, and all current workers must return to North Korea by the end of the year.
Hundreds of North Korean construction workers were spotted Monday by a local source at Vladivostok International Airport awaiting their flight back to Pyongyang.
“Vladivostok airport is very crowded today with all the North Korean workers returning home,” said the source in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service.
“The workers are wearing Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il double-portrait badges and are waiting separately from all the ordinary passengers,” said the source.
The source recognized faces of those he had met before.
“I met them at grocery stores and markets in downtown Vladivostok a few days ago. They were in groups of four to five, buying frozen fish, crab and other kinds of seafood as gifts,” the source said.
“When I met them at the market [that day], I asked how long they had been in Russia. They replied that they were returning home after three months. When I asked when they would return to Russia, they replied that as far as they knew they would not be coming back, hinting that this was a complete withdrawal, not a temporary return due to visa expiration,” said the source.
When visas are set to expire, North Korean workers typically make visa runs back to North Korea, sometimes even returning to Russia on the same day after having their visas reissued.
The source said that the returning North Koreans stood out from the rest of the passengers in the bustling Vladivostok airport.
“Most of [them] are very tanned and they look skinny, so it is easy for locals to recognize them,” the source said.
In search of a “better life”
“[They] feel bad returning home. They say that no matter how hard they work they can earn an average of $4 a month in North Korea, but in Russia they can get more than $100 each month,” said the source.
Another clue that pointed to a forced withdrawal was the manner in which the workers were organized in preparation to board their flights.
“[They] were waiting in separate groups of about 100 people. I found out that [they] didn’t even have they own passports [on them] and they didn’t know which flight or what time they would be boarding,” said the source.
“They were just moving in groups under the guidance of a [more senior] person in charge,” added the source.
Another source, a Russian citizen of Korean descent, was also at the airport on Monday.
“The airport was bustling with North Koreans,” said the second source, adding, “It was the first time I saw hundreds of [them] gathered at the airport for a departure process.”
“More surprising than the number of workers returning home was the sheer volume of their luggage,” the second source said, implying that the workers would not be returning to Russia any time soon.
The Korean-Russian source reported that some of the workers had inquired into the price of a flight ticket to Seoul, possibly hoping that they could find a way to escape to the South.
“Most [of the] workers reacted sensitively, refusing to greet me back in Korean or to take the expensive cigarettes I was offering to them, possibly because they were being watched by the people in charge of the group,” said the second source.
“There were some high-ranking officials who were busy carrying documents with a list of names and having conversations with other Korean-Russians. It was quite a contrast [to the behavior of the ordinary workers,]” said the second source.
No more North Korean workers in Russia
Meanwhile, Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matzegora said in December that there were at that time 11,000 North Korean workers in Russia. A third source, familiar with the situation in Russia, estimated that there were around 10,000 in the country up until May this year, but a significant number of them have returned to North Korea since then.
Matzegora said in an interview with Ria Novosti dated September 5 that there were now fewer than 10,000 North Korean workers in Russia, but by December 22 this year there “will not be a single one [remaining],” as Russia moves to comply with the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions.
RFA and other media outlets have reported, however, that North Korean workers have been known to travel to Russia on student visas and then find work as a method to skirt the restrictions put in place by the sanctions.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.