New York Times
May 18, 2003
Russia Turns to a Poor Neighbor for Cheap Labor
By JAMES BROOKE
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia -- Amid the construction dust of a faux Southern California shopping mall, where cream walls, marble floors and luxury boutiques were taking shape, a construction worker resolutely pushed his wheelbarrow, ignoring a poster of a lingerie model, dressed in little more than a black cowboy hat.
"The North Koreans are great, they don't smoke, they don't drink," said Grigoryi T. Akhoyan, the Armenian developer of the new downtown mall here. "I have friends in California who employ Mexicans. I think North Koreans work just as hard."
On May Day, Russians here were enjoying their holiday with a parade and concert by the docks of this Pacific port. But across an avenue, two North Korean stonemasons were working, tapping bricks with mallets to complete a sidewalk.
"Koreitsi," Russian for Korean, announced 14 classified advertisements listing the availability of North Korean workers in a recent issue of the Dalpress newspaper. The advertisements included words like "fast," "cheap" and "quality."
With their numbers rising here, North Korean construction workers are now so ubiquitous that one recent morning an American diplomat noticed a North Korean crew at work plastering the bomb-barrier flower boxes in front of the United States Consulate here. They were replaced with Russian workers.
In an inheritance from Soviet days, as many as 10,000 North Koreans work in the Russian Far East under a contract worker system. North Korea provides cheap labor under tight controls to the Russian Far East, which is short of labor, but fears Asian immigration.
By contrast, China gives no legal security to North Korean economic migrants. In a yearlong crackdown, China has forcibly sent back tens of thousands of North Koreans, often to harsh punishment at home.
With North Korea now the poorest nation in Northeast Asia, all of its neighbors — China, South Korea, Russia and Japan — have adopted contingency plans to block a sudden outflow of migrants in the event of a collapse of the Communist government. But while Japan, South Korea and Russia lack workers willing to do dirty and dangerous jobs, only Russia has been willing to accept North Koreans as guest workers.
"It is good the North Korean workers are here," Yuri M. Kopylov, Vladivostok's mayor, said in an impromptu interview on the edge of a children's folk concert. "They work all day long. There is no competition between North Koreans and Russians. There is work for everybody."
The arrangement allows the North Korean government to milk the maximum money from the workers, who generally come here on three-year contracts. Most of their wages are retained or collected by the North Korean state companies that bring them here, workers and employers interviewed here said.
Two North Koreans interviewed at an apartment renovation project here said their unit leader told them they must earn a minimum of $400 a month (close to the local minimum wage), which for most means moonlighting at private jobs. They are allowed to keep $100. This money, the men said, they either send home to their families or carry back on their yearly vacations. Although they often work 16-hour days, sleeping in apartments they are renovating, they said they considered themselves lucky to be working in Russia and hoped to renew their contracts.
The men asked not be identified in any way, saying that they could be harshly punished for talking about North Korea to foreigners. One man drew his fingers across his throat in a universal sign of execution.
"The men coming here realize they are prisoners of the system," Mr. Akhoyan said, referring to North Korea's hold over workers here. "But all the workers come here willingly. And when the contract is over, they seem to regret going."
The Armenian developer said he paid "about the same amount of money" to his 60 North Korean workers as to Russians with the same skills. The advantage to him, he explained, "is that the Koreans do a greater volume of work."
His North Korean foreman said in broken Russian that when his contract expired, he would "go home." Uneasy about talking with a foreigner, he said only that in North Korea he had a wife, son and daughter whom he only saw once a year during a monthlong vacation.
One North Korean dormitory here is on the third floor of an old merchant marine training academy in an industrial suburb. On a recent morning, about 12 North Korean men were fishing for dinner off a pier.
In a hallway leading to the dormitory's sleeping quarters, a red-and-gold banner brightened the drab interior.
"Our great leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung, will be with us forever! Hurrah for Gen. Kim Jong Il, the son of the 21st century!" read the slogans, referring to North Korea's late leader and his son and successor.
In the Russian Far East, North Korea's tightly controlled migrant worker system is welcomed by local authorities worried that uncontrolled Asian migration could end 150 years of European dominance here. On a visit to the region two summers ago, Kim Jong Il told an aide to President Vladimir V. Putin that the Russian authorities had his permission to shoot any North Koreans found dealing in drugs.
North Korea's worker control system is especially harsh in remote Siberian logging camps which, according to Amnesty International, are directly run by North Korea's ruthless Public Security Service. Escapees interviewed in Moscow in recent years have told human rights researchers that the North Korean camp authorities maintain private prisons and prevent escapes by rationing food and punishing would-be escapees with torture and sometimes execution. During the Soviet era, most logging in Siberia was done by prisoners in forced labor camps.
Viktor Ishayev, governor of Khabarovsk since 1991, has said in interviews with Russian reporters over the last year that the Russian authorities have regained control over the camps and have reduced the number of North Koreans loggers.
There used to be 15,000 North Koreans in labor camps," he said in a news conference in January. "Now 600 is the quota, mostly in logging."
On May 3, Ben Christie and Nicholas Wrathall, two documentary filmmakers, visited the Alonka camp, a 16-hour train ride and a 3-hour jeep ride from Khabarovsk, a regional capital. Even though the team had filming permits from Khabarovsk officials, Mr. Christie said, North Korean authority was made clear by a North Korean flag on a crane emblazoned with Korean slogans.
Mr. Christie recalled in a interview what happened when the workers spotted the team filming. "The chief came running up to the car," he said. "He tried to pull the aerial off. Then, he tried to pull the door off. Then he reached inside the car for the camera."
After the driver turned around, Mr. Christie said, "they threw a huge rock at the car."
On their return train ride from the town of Chegdomyn, Mr. Christie and his crew found and interviewed a North Korean Communist Party secretary, in full uniform, who had been attending a meeting for camp overseers in Chegdomyn.