This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean agents in Russia are offering a reward of up to U.S. $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of escaped North Korean construction workers, sources in Russia told RFA.
North Korean workers in Russia are there in violation of UN sanctions, which froze the issuance of new working visas for North Koreans and mandated the complete repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019, with the aim of depriving the Pyongyang of cash to fund its prohibited nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Though tens of thousands of North Koreans returned home prior to the deadline, RFA and other media outlets have reported over the past year that many have been able to enter Russia on student visas and find work to earn money for the government, which takes a huge cut of their earnings.
Although the workers are intensively screened for loyalty to Pyongyang prior to being assigned abroad, some still use the opportunity to escape North Korea entirely by running away from their workplaces in Russia and going into hiding.
To retain control over this valuable source foreign cash for the North Korean government, agents in Russia are offering rewards to people who turn in workers who try escape.
“Arrest operations by North Korean agents are underway and a wanted order has been issued for North Korean workers who escaped from their workplace in Vladivostok,” a Russian citizen of Korean descent from the Russian Far East city told RFA’s Korean Service last week.
“These days it is spreading among the ethnic Korean communities in Nakhodka, Khabarovsk and Ussuriysk that you can receive a bounty if you report a North Korean worker that has escaped from a local construction site,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
The source said the amount awarded to informants varied depending on each company employing them, but a few of the escapees carried a bounty of $10,000.
“Since late last year, around 10 North Korean workers escaped from a single construction site in Khabarovsk, but nobody knows where they are now,” said the source.
“Among the escapees are two officials who were managing the workers. Those are the guys worth $10,000,” said the source.
The annual salary for one of the construction workers is about $10,000, most of which will be forwarded to the North Korean government, but the source said that arresting the two officials is a high priority for their company, as they were key figures in the operation.
“When a worker escapes from a construction site in Russia, the officials who were managing and supervising that worker will be summoned back to North Korea and purged. This is why the officials had no choice but to escape themselves,” the source said.
“But if the officials escape, the company itself will be severely punished, so they are trying their best to arrest the escapees, even risking coming up short funds for the party,” said the source.
Another Russian of Korean descent from Ussuriysk, about 50 miles north of Vladivostok, told RFA that news of rewards for helping arrest escaped North Koreans has spread there recently.
“There was a notice that a bounty would be paid for cooperating with the search for hiding North Korean construction workers,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.
“Up until now, the North Korean workers who enter Russia have been working in Russia even after their visas expired but they were unable to return home due to coronavirus. North Korean staffing companies and the workers themselves think they are fortunate that they cannot return to North Korea because of the coronavirus. They also continue to earn foreign currency,” the second source said.
Last March, the Russian authorities told the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea that North Korea closed its borders due to the onset of the coronavirus, leaving about 500 North Korean workers in Russia unable to return home.
The second source said that the North Korean authorities have asked Russian police to issue wanted orders for the workers that escaped. They also advertised the $10,000 bounty and asked the local ethnic Korean community in Ussuriysk for support in tracking them down.
But if the workers remain loyal to Pyongyang and refrain from escaping, they run the risk of being arrested by Russian police anyway.
At a construction site near Moscow, police last week arrested seven North Koreans for working on student visas.
A third Russian citizen of Korean descent told RFA that the seven North Koreans were caught when the police arrived for an unannounced inspection.
“Russian police were investigating foreigners staying illegally, and they arrested those working at the construction site who had student visas,” said the third source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
“This kind of crackdown on North Koreans for their visas is common. Seven of the workers were found to have student visas,” the source said.
Russia, which has been criticized for weak implementation of UN sanctions, intermittently cracks down on illegal aliens. The North Korean workers and their employer were caught off guard during the inspection.
“They claimed they were international students during the police investigation, but when police asked which college they were studying at, the workers, in their 20s and 30s, couldn’t even answer this basic question,” the third source said.
“Prior to when the UN Security Council’s sanctions were in effect, the North Koreans dispatched to Russia were mostly in their 40s or older. But these days they are sending people in their 20s and 30s, because if people in their 40s and 50s with children apply for visas to study abroad, who would believe them?” the third source said.
The police classified the seven as illegal aliens and detained them, according to the third source.
“The North Korean embassy visited the police station to check their identities and asked the police for leniency.”
A fourth Russian of Korean descent from St. Petersburg told RFA that North Koreans have been returning to that city as well.
“Most of them are young workers in their 30s or even younger from Pyongyang and they have been in Russia for about two months,” said the fourth source, who declined to be named.
“In the past, North Korea was sending active-duty soldiers to Russia as workers. In order to avoid international criticism for sending active-duty personnel to earn foreign currency, the North Korean authorities forced them to grow their hair and dress in ordinary workers’ clothes,” the fourth source said.
The fourth source said that longer hair and an absence of a military uniform is enough for them to pass as students.
“When North Korean workers are caught by the police at construction sites, they claim that they are not illegal residents. They claim to be international students working to make extra cash during vacation time,” the fourth source said.
“Many North Korean workers entered Vladivostok from Pyongyang via Air Koryo in small groups between the end of last year and the beginning of this year. After that, they were scattered regionally to find construction sites in local cities, working on a small scale to earn foreign currency.”
Following the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2397 in Dec. 2017, tens of thousands of North Korean workers in Russia were repatriated by the end of 2019.
According to CNN, in January 2018 an estimated 50,000 North Koreans were working in Russia – many in construction – in what the U.S. Department of State called “slave-like” labor.
RFA reported in September 2019 that crowds of several hundreds of North Korean workers were spotted at the Vladivostok airport waiting to board flights to Pyongyang.
RFA also reported in March 2020 that North Korea was preparing to redeploy workers to Russia, but plans had hit a snag due to the onset of the coronavirus.
The UN Security Council’s Sanctions Committee on North Korea did not respond to RFA’s queries on the situation as of Friday afternoon.
A fifth source, familiar with the North Korean labor situation in Russia, told RFA that there were currently 2,000 to 3,000 North Koreans in Russia working to earn foreign cash for Pyongyang in violation of sanctions.