This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean authorities have ordered migrant workers living in Russia to hand over an additional U.S. $100 of their salaries each month as the Kim Jong Un regime struggles to secure foreign currency amid crushing international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, according to sources.
A source in Vladivostok, near Russia’s border with North Korea, told RFA’s Korean Service that the directive had led to frustration among North Koreans residing in the city, who tend to work in construction and say that job opportunities in the sector are increasingly limited.
“North Korean authorities recently increased the amount of money that [North Korean] workers in Russia have to provide to the state,” said the source, who spoke to RFA last week on condition of anonymity.
“These days, it is hard to find construction projects, so the workers are complaining that the amount of money they have to make is too high.”
Officials in Pyongyang tasked with dispatching North Korean workers abroad are now pressuring those living in Russia to both increase their contributions to the regime and “work harder,” the source said, citing a “difficult situation” with the economy back home.
“The authorities ordered each worker to pay an additional U.S. $100, which has led to complaints from those who aren’t even able to pay their current allotment,” said the source, noting that workers had previously been required to hand over around U.S. $760 per month.
Meanwhile, most North Koreans are only granted three-month visas to enter Russia and forced to earn a living illegally because they lack work permits, the source said, allowing Russian businessmen to exploit them by withholding their pay, in some cases for several months after a job is complete.
An estimated 50,000 North Koreans work in Russia—many in construction—under what the U.S. State Department has called “slave-like” conditions.
The U.N. Security Council approved sanctions in December 2017 that banned the export of North Korean labor as part of a bid to deprive the Kim regime of some U.S. $500 million per year generated from the wages of an estimated 93,000 North Koreans working overseas.
The sanctions called for a freeze on new work permits, and would require host countries to send North Korean workers back by the end of 2019. Many countries in Europe and Africa reportedly complied early.
While Russia voted to approve the 2017 U.N. sanctions, experts have said they were approved grudgingly, and only after they were made as “toothless” as possible.
Frustration over missiles
Speaking to RFA last week, an ethnic Korean living in Moscow confirmed the directive requiring North Koreans in Russia to increase their monthly payments to Pyongyang.
“I am well aware that the North Korean authorities issued an order to make additional offerings of U.S. $100 per month, citing a bad economic situation back home,” the source said.
“U.S. $100 a month is a huge amount of money for the hard-pressed North Korean workers who are currently having problems finding construction work.”
According to the source, strengthened sanctions and a lack of jobs this year have significantly impacted North Korean workers in Russia, who he said are growing frustrated by the Kim regime’s relentless demands for cash to support its weapons program.
“The workers complain, saying ‘how on earth can they fire missiles every other day when they say the country’s economy is in shambles,’” he said.
“They are resentful of North Korea, saying the country is losing a lot of money … by playing with missiles, while the workers—who don’t have enough to eat or clothes to wear—are slaving away abroad.”
A North Korean construction worker in Vladivostok surnamed Park told RFA in late 2018 that he was able to earn around U.S. $40 per day, seeking out his own jobs in the city, and could earn upwards of U.S. $2,000 a month during the peak summer construction season.
But while construction jobs were easier to find at the time, he complained that North Korean officials dispatched to the region regularly extort money from workers under their supervision.
Another source said that North Korean workers receive only a fifth of their earnings by the time handlers have taken a share for Pyongyang.