North Korean Workers Skirt Sanctions to Return to Russia

nk-construction-vladivostok North Korean workers at a construction site in Vladivostok, Russia, in an undated photo.
Yonhap News

North Korean workers are finding ways to return to Vladivostok after their once populous migrant community in the Russian Far East was decimated as Moscow begun making efforts to comply with U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang.

The sanctions, aimed at depriving the regime of cash to fund its prohibited nuclear weapons and missile programs, call for a freeze on new working visas for North Koreans and the complete repatriation of North Koreans currently working abroad by the end of 2019.

According to earlier RFA reports, Russian authorities were deporting North Korean workers to comply with the U.N., but many of the workers have found their way back by utilizing loopholes in Moscow’s immigration policies, sources say.

“The North Korean workers in construction sites are the very same workers who left Russia at the end of last year as their visas expired,” said a source from Vladivostok in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service on Monday.

“They went back home and returned with student visas,” said the source.

Most of them are construction workers [working with] a dispatch agency in Pyongyang. They work in groups for large and small construction projects in downtown Vladivostok,” the source said.

The source noted that not all of the sectors that previously hired North Koreans are calling them back.

“[Up until] last year [they] had been working in the construction, fishing, manufacturing and restaurant industries, but now they have only been dispatched to construction sites and restaurants.”

The source was skeptical that the international community would be fooled by the workers’ sanctions-dodging scheme, pointing out this loophole had been attempted before.

“[They] tried [the same thing] last year but the international community raised the issue that they were [gaining entry] by cheating,” the source said.

“It just seems obvious [that they are lying] when migrants aged 30 to 50 come to Russia on student visas,” the source said.

“Because they are on student visas, the workers must visit a Russian educational institution once per week just to check in [and keep up appearances],” said the source.

While many of the construction workers are returnees, the North Korea-themed restaurant workers appear to be first timers, joining a niche that had once enjoyed a boom across the entire Asian region.

The restaurants need a fresh supply of young entertainer-waitresses, who, rather than the food, are the main attraction. Recently the novelty of their singing and dancing performances has worn off, leading to closures across the whole industry.

But those restaurants in Vladivostok that are still in business are able to use the loophole to get new talent.

A second source, also from Vladivostok said on Tuesday that three of the North Korean restaurants in the city took on more waitresses recently.

“The waitresses say that they are Pyongyang University of Commerce graduates and they came to Russia for training,” the source said.

The source added that the ‘training’ was merely a justification. Previous RFA reports detailed how the North Korean regime exploits these young women, often requiring them to work long hours for little or no pay, while taking the lion’s share of the restaurant’s earnings as a means to generate foreign cash.

“North Korea is clearly dispatching its workers to Russia,” the source said.

“This tells us that North Korea and Russia have a close relationship. It is suspected that Russia is totally on board with accepting North Korean workers despite the sanctions,” the source said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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