SEOUL—North Korean laborers assigned by Pyongyang to camps in Siberia to earn their government foreign currency are increasingly fleeing their work teams to go it alone as illegal workers. Some hope eventually to seek refuge in a third country, according to an eyewitness report.
Christian missionary Che Hui-joon, who returned to South Korea from a building project in southeastern Russia last year, said around half the officially contracted North Korean construction workers had defected from camps in his area.
“North Koreans receive 70 percent of the average wages of Russian workers. But the real problem is that...if these North Koreans earn U.S.$500, only U.S.$50 of that goes into their own pockets,” Che told RFA’s Korean service.
“The other U.S.$450 goes to North Korean officials,” Che said, adding that the situation was the same in the timber trade, where North Korean guest-workers were also highly concentrated.
North Korean laborers have been sent to Siberia since an agreement between what was then the Soviet Union and its protege in Pyongyang in 1967, on the joint development of the Russian Far East.
Of course, they will be illegal workers, but they can make more money. That’s why many North Korean laborers escape.
Under the accord, North Koreans would be housed in specially isolated camps run by North Korean officials and subject to North Korean laws and political controls.
They worked 12-hour shifts cutting timber, which was then divided between the two countries in lieu of overdue debt repayments from Pyongyang.
Initially a punitive assignment for North Koreans with a bad class background, logging and later construction jobs became highly sought after during the 1980s, when wages switched from the worthless local currency to roubles.
Local media reports and non-government groups have claimed that North Korean and Chinese laborers also present in the region have been involved in illegal activities, such as unauthorized trade in timber and endangered species.
Che said fear of losing their legal work status didn’t appear to deter North Koreans from escaping, as the financial rewards were so high.
Their life was difficult. Their rented place had no heating, no electricity or running water.
“If they don’t have these North Korean guards and supervisors, all of what they earn from their labor goes into their own pocket, the same as their Russian counterparts," Che told RFA reporter Lee Ho-rim.
“Of course, they will be illegal workers, but they can make more money. That’s why many North Korean laborers escape,” he said.
The North Korean workers normally slept, ate, and worked in small groups of five or six people. But those who left the officially supervised groups would take work outside urban areas for fear of being caught, Che said.
Their living and working conditions were harsh and primitive, Che learned from two North Korean workers who worked on his mission's construction project.
“Their life was difficult. Their rented place had no heating, no electricity or running water. They slept on a sofa because the beds had worn out, with wires sticking out of them. They ate poorly,” Che remembered.
Che said all the North Koreans he saw were thin and weak-looking, standing no taller than about 1.6m. “They looked skinny, they looked small, and they looked tired,” he said.
Those who escaped the camps were without a passport or visa, and stayed on in Russia as illegal residents.
“Their only way to survive was to make money and save it,” he said. “It looked to me as if their ultimate goal was to get international refugee status eventually.”
“They knew that if they were captured, and forcibly repatriated to North Korea, they would face dire consequences,” Che said.
He said his attempts to convert the North Korean laborers to Christianity had not borne much fruit.
“They confessed to me that it was difficult for them to have a religion,” Che told RFA. “They said the existence of God, a spiritual existence, was difficult for them to believe in.”
Original reporting in Korean by Lee Ho-rim. RFA Korean service director: Jaehoon Ahn. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.