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North Koreans in Russia ordered to work in groups so they can’t escape

North Korean women workers (Roman Harak/WikiCommons)
February 21, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korean construction workers in Russia are being prohibited by their government back home from taking on small-scale side jobs, a policy change designed to prevent them from escaping, sources in Russia told RFA.

An estimated 20,000 North Koreans have been dispatched by their government to Russia to earn foreign cash for the regime. The government keeps the lion’s share of the wages they earn while abroad.

After several North Koreans disappeared while working apart from their handlers in mid-January, authorities gave the order that side jobs are no longer allowed. A Russian citizen of Korean descent from Vladivostok in the Russian Far East that authorities fear the workers will become “ideologically lax.”

“Since January, North Korean workers here in Russia have not been able to take on any individual small-scale contract work,” the source told RFA’s Korean Service on Feb. 9.

“From now on, all workers must work in groups of 10 to 20 people under mutual surveillance,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

The workers also are prohibited from living outside of a designated dormitory, according to the source.

“The human resources officials used to confiscate the workers’ passports and gave them paper identification. Now they have even confiscated the papers,” he said.

“One North Korean worker I knew at a job site said that authorities ordered that nobody go out alone or speak to the locals. There are security cameras in the dormitory, and they are fenced in with iron plates. Security is set up to prevent their escape,” said the source.

Authorities also confiscated the workers’ cellphones, according to the source.

“The workers are prohibited from working alone so that they won’t have a chance to become ideologically lax,” he said.

The workers working alone in nearby Nakhodka have all returned to their handling company there, another Russian citizen of Korean descent told RFA.

“The North Korean authorities established new business rules to prevent ideological hazards and increase foreign currency earning potential,” said the second source, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “Workers should be organized in groups of 10 or more, and each company requires them to offer about U.S. $700 per month each.”

Supervisors who are unable to raise the $700 will be removed from their positions, the second source said.

“Their worker groups will be disbanded, and the workers will be reassigned to other groups that perform better,” the second source said.  

North Korean labor exports were supposed to have stopped when United Nations nuclear sanctions froze the issuance of work visas and mandated the repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019.

But Pyongyang sometimes dispatches workers to China and Russia on short-term student or visitor visas to get around sanctions.