Alain Devalpo – Le Monde diplomatique

Copyright Le Monde diplomatique
April 2006
North Korea, for all its nuclear ambitions, is close to economic
disaster, and is short of food, fuel and the simplest material
goods. To pay its debt to Russia (which Moscow will not cancel),
it exports a migrant labour force to be cruelly exploited in
Russia’s far eastern wild west.
by Alain Devalpo
The man with the face wizened and marked by years of toil
said: “I’m not afraid to tell you my story, because it’s
true.” He looked like a native of the vast forests of
northern Russia. But he wasn’t. “I am from Nampo in North
Korea,” he began, struggling to find words. “I was a
chauffeur; I worked for the state for 10 years but then I was
taken ill. I ended up with no money, so I decided to try my
luck at the logging camps in Russia. I got here at the
beginning of 1995. They sent me to the camp at Tynda” (1).
North Korean lumberjacks have been hacking at the taiga
forests of eastern Russia for decades. There are many of them
in the Amur region north of Khabarovsk (2). The Far East is
home to only 5% of Russia’s people, yet it covers 33% of the
federation’s enormous area, and workers are hard to find in
this human desert. For historical and geographical reasons,
the area has always had close ties with communist North
Korea, ties that survived the fall of the Soviet system.
There are frequent official meetings and good transport
links: the railway between the countries has reopened and
there is a weekly flight between Vladivostok and Pyongyang.
“There were three waves of North Korean worker immigration
during the 20th century,” explained Larisa Zabrovskaya, a
historian who is based in Vladivostok. The first started with
the end of the second world war and the liberation of Korea,
when Soviet fish-treatment factories called on North Korean
manpower. In the 1950s there were about 25,000 of these
workers and their families living in the Soviet Union.
“The second wave took place after a secret meeting between
Leonid Brezhnev and Kim Il-sung (3) in Vladivostok in 1966,”
said Zabrovskaya. “The two leaders decided to install
lumberjacks in timber camps, between 15,000 and 20,000 of
them in any year.”
In those days mostly prisoners, both criminals and opponents
of Kim Il-sung’s regime, headed for the inhospitable lands
where there was no need for barbed wire to fence in would-be
escapees. That is no longer the case, said Zabrovskaya: “In
recent years, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, has met
twice with Vladimir Putin. They discussed North Korea’s debt,
which dates from the days when the Soviet Union was
supporting its North Korean ally.” Putin remained
intransigent: cancelling North Korea’s debt was out of the
question, despite its economic situation: “To pay off the
debt, Pyongyang said it would keep sending workers.”
But there is no longer any need to send the state’s
prisoners: “People leave for the camps or to work on building
sites voluntarily. According to the customs, more than 10,000
North Koreans with work visas cross the border each year.”
Everybody knows that they go as a result of a bilateral
agreement. But the truth about their working conditions is a
closely guarded secret.
To pick up fragments of information, you have to talk to
South Korean Christian pastors who work in the region. Out of
ethnic solidarity, some of them have linked with the
followers of juche (the North Korean ideology of autarky, or
total state self-reliance, invented by Kim Il-sung). You also
have to get around the Russian authorities, whose
surveillance has intensified since 2004, when two former
workers took refuge in the United States and South Korean
consulates in Vladivostok.
We arranged to meet our witness under the cover of a church,
in the heart of an area teeming with babushkas (4) on their
way home from the banya (Russian public baths). There he told
his tale: “Working hours vary from camp to camp. I was
working way up in a remote camp, for 16 or 17 hours every day
of the week. Those employed at the main camp, on distribution
or other jobs, worked only 12 or 14 hours. Counting New Year,
Kim Il-sung’s birthday, Kim Jong-il’s birthday and the
anniversary of the founding of the party, we used to get one
week’s holiday a year. In winter it’s very cold, at night the
temperature can reach -60C. Your hands, feet and face all
freeze. But the hardest thing was the food. They only gave us
150gm of rice and a bowl of soup per meal. That was all.”
Anything for a job
To recruit lumberjacks, the Pyongyang authorities dangle the
possibility of riches in foreign currency. The workers can
sign contracts for three years or more in Russia. North
Korea’s economic crisis is such that there is no shortage of
takers. All are party members and carefully vetted. “To come
to Russia, there are a number of requirements,” one said.
“You have to be in good physical condition. You have to have
references from party officials. Only married men with
families [who stay home as hostages] are allowed to come.”
Many will do anything to get the job: “My health was bad, so
I had to pay money to be selected.”
The lumberjacks’ stories were as heavy as taiga timber. Not
getting out of the way fast enough when trees are coming down
is a hazard of the job. Often there are accidents which lead
to broken limbs, sometimes needing amputation. There are
doctors at the camps, but medicines are often unavailable or
out of date. A lumberjack said: “If you can pay, you get
better treatment. I’ve been injured three times. Once, numbed
by the cold, I was working too slowly and a trunk fell down
on my chest. I was lucky not to die. Another time I hurt my
leg and couldn’t work for a month, so I didn’t get paid.”
The lumberjacks are not allowed to seek treatment in Russian
hospitals: the camps are self-contained and contact with
outside is forbidden. Though they are cut off from
neighbouring villages, some workers do manage to trade with
the Russians in secret. They have to get around the Korean
security services, the Powibo, at the camps. Our informants
said that breaking the rules leads to severe punishments, and
for trying to escape, the punishment is solitary confinement.
The companies in charge of the camps agree with the Russian
and North Korean authorities about how much wood to chop. The
best wood, from the lower part of the trees, is for Russia.
Medium-grade wood goes to North Korea. The rest is exported
to China or Japan. “Instead of a salary, I received coupons,”
said our informant. “They’d told me I’d be able to exchange
them, but I’ve never been able to buy anything with them. I
used to send them back to my family at home. But workers who
went back to Korea told me that the shops where you were
supposed to be able to exchange the coupons were always
On their way to the camps, the lumberjacks may glimpse
Vladivostok through the train window. This great port looking
out over the Sea of Japan was closed to foreigners for much
of the Soviet period. After being plunged into chaos by the
fall of the Soviet Union, its regeneration has turned it into
a hive of building sites; it is short of workers, and Chinese
and North Korean labourers are welcome. In 2004 the regional
government registered 262,775 arrivals from China (most were
tourists) and 13,294 North Koreans (who were definitely not
on holiday).
“I’ve met more than 100 construction workers in Vladivostok
and they all said they were from Pyongyang,” a church pastor
said. “I was surprised, so I looked into it. It turns out
that the companies prefer to recruit people from the capital
because they find it less of a culture shock to work in town.
They adapt better. And that helps limit escape attempts.”
Cheap and hardworking
There are six companies, employing around 3,000. The local
press describes the Koretsky (Koreans) as “quick, cheap and
hardworking”. “They agree not to be paid until the work is
finished,” a businessman explained. Individuals employ them
to put up a wall or repaint a flat. Everyone in Vladivostok
knows that the Koreans hardly live well; they often sleep on
the sites and they work very hard. But everyone also says:
“At the end of the day, they’re making money.”
That is not always true, such is the perversity of Kim
Jong-il’s regime. The employment companies do not offer paid
work. Their job is to take the passports when the labourers
arrive, keep an eye on them in their residences and collect a
tax. It is up to the workers to find their own employers,
through contacts or classified ads. Whether they find work or
not, they have to pay 250 a month to the companies, a lot of
money in a region where salaries are much lower than in
Moscow (a university lecturer in Vladivostok earns 125 a
Only through numbingly hard work on several sites
simultaneously can a Korean labourer pay off his debt, make
ends meet and put a little aside. Some give up. “It’s too
hard. After three years’ work I want to go back to Korea,”
one said. He had signed a contract for five years. He lives
in a single room with three companions and, despite all his
efforts, has not managed to save anything. He is trying not
to lose hope: “As soon as I’ve got a bit of money, I’ll go
back to Korea and then try to make it to Malaysia or Kuwait.
They say you can earn more there.”
In the timber camps, on building sites, and on Russian farms,
these labourers experience profound disillusionment. The
North Korean regime they supported has offered them hell and
made them call it paradise. Some decide that running away is
the only solution, despite the consequences for their
families back home. One man, on discovering that a year and a
half of drudgery had earned him no real cash, decided to
leave: “I ran away one night, around two or three o’clock in
the morning. There were four of us. It was impossible to take
a train from a station near the camp, because they’re not
supposed to sell us tickets. So we had to bribe one of the
camp’s drivers to take us to a town further away where we’d
be able to get on a train”.
One of the four could speak a little Russian. They stuck
together just for survival: “We always travelled together. We
went down towards the Chinese border where there are uranium
mines. We worked for a year on a building site at a mine. In
1999 we came to Vladivostok to try and make it to South
Korea. I’ve been hiding in and around Vladivostok for six
years now. I’m always afraid of getting caught by the
Koreans’ features make them vulnerable in a region whose
police are already on the lookout for illegal Chinese
immigrants. How many are hidden across Russia? The pastors
estimate some 2,000, spread out along the 11,000km
trans-Siberian railway between Vladivostok and Moscow.
According to the United Nations convention on the status of
refugees, our informant should be allowed to demand asylum.
The Kremlin does not agree (5). Should an escapee be caught
by the Russian police, he is certain to be deported back to
North Korea, the inner circle of hell.
Alain Devalpo is a journalist
(1) A medium-sized town in the Amur region.
(2) Khabarovsk, 1,200km north of Vladivostok, is the official
capital of Russia’s Far East region.
(3) Respectively, Soviet leader 1964-1982 and founder of the
Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, which he ruled
from 1948 until his death in 1994. Kim Il-sung was succeeded
by his son, Kim Jong-il.
(4) Russian for grandmother.
(5) China’s policy is harsher: informing on North Korean
refugees is encouraged, while helping them carries a
seven-year prison sentence.
Translated by Gulliver Cragg
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