North Korean workers in Russia feel financial sting from Ukraine invasion

The depreciation of the ruble means the workers earn half of what they did before Russia’s attack.
By Jieun Kim
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North Korean workers in Russia feel financial sting from Ukraine invasion A picture illustration shows U.S. dollar and Russian ruble banknotes in Sarajevo, March 9, 2015.

North Koreans working in Russia are suffering collateral damage from their host country’s invasion of Ukraine, as the ruble’s collapse has made their earnings close to worthless while they still have to send U.S. dollars back to Pyongyang.

An estimated 20,000 North Koreans have been dispatched to Russia to earn foreign cash for the regime. Pyongyang sets a quota for each worker in U.S. dollars and keeps the lion’s share of the wages the workers earn while abroad.

Until the Russian military invaded Ukraine last week, the ruble had been relatively stable, but the currency’s crash has left some workers bordering on destitution, sources said.

The ruble lost nearly a third of its value against the dollar, falling below one cent this week as a result newly imposed sanctions over the Ukraine invasion.

“After the Western world imposed strong economic sanctions on Russia the ruble and the workers’ salaries have been essentially halved,” a Russian citizen of Korean descent from St. Petersburg, in the country’s northwest, told RFA’s Korean Service March 1.

“Right after the outbreak of the war, the ruble began crashing. The North Koreans here cannot afford their own accommodations, let alone saving any income,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

“They barely made a living at all [before the war] because they were paying the North Korean government its cut each month. North Korean human resources companies are in a panic because of the ruble’s plunge. They have even begun skimping on meals to save money so they can meet their annual assignment,” he said.

Before sending the money to North Korea, the job firms must convert the rubles their workers earn into dollars. And after the government takes its cut, the companies must again divide the wages.

“They pay a commission to the local broker who arranged the job. Then they cover their living expenses of the workers. The remaining money after these fees are paid are given to the individual workers for their monthly salary,” the source said.

“As the war with Ukraine began, the ruble sunk lower and lower with each passing day. After converting into dollars to pay their home country and paying brokerage fees, the remaining money is not even enough to purchase food for the workers,” he said.

The source said he knew of about 3,000 workers in their 20s and 30s dispatched by Pyongyang to work on construction sites in and around St. Petersburg and Moscow.

“There is absolutely no possibility that the North Korean authorities will lower the amount of money that the workers are assigned to pay. They will not consider the Russian-Ukraine war or the trends of the local exchange rate,” he said.

“The state-assigned money for North Korean human resource companies varies slightly from one company to another. The average quota one worker pays is about $7,000 to $8,000 per year.”

In the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok, about 20,000 North Korean workers are suffering financially due to the war more than 4,500 miles away, another Russian of Korean descent there told RFA.

“North Korean workers here start their work at 7 in the morning and work nonstop until late at night, except for lunch and dinner breaks. Once the ruble crashed because of the war, it became impossible to pay the North Korean government quota and still have enough for living expenses,” he said.

“Prior to the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine, the exchange rate was stable at around 70 rubles per dollar. These days, it is over 110 rubles per dollar. If this trend continues, the real value of North Korean workers’ wages in Russia will be a fraction of what it was before the war.”

North Korean labor exports were supposed to have stopped when United Nations nuclear sanctions froze the issuance of work visas and mandated the repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019.

But Pyongyang sometimes dispatches workers to China and Russia on short-term student or visitor visas to get around sanctions.

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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