This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
More and more North Korean construction workers deployed to Russia are escaping from their jobs after hearing they are to be sent to Russian-controlled areas in Ukraine, sources in Russia told RFA.
The cash-strapped North Korean government sends legions of workers to Russia to earn desperately needed foreign currency. Workers forward the lion’s share of their salaries to the government, but what they get to keep is greater than what they could earn doing similar work back home.
But now that there is demand for construction in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, increasing numbers of North Korean construction workers are abandoning their jobs and going into hiding, a Russian citizen of Korean descent told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“The North Korean workers are nowhere to be seen at the construction sites these days. This is because the command ordered they stop work for an internal investigation as increasing numbers of them are trying to escape after hearing they would be deployed to Ukraine’s Donbas region.” said the source.
“The workers are shaken by the news. … Pyongyang in early September ordered the dispatching companies to gather workers and put them on standby instead of taking on new work where they are currently dispatched,” the source said.
The workers are well aware of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to the source. Though the North Korean government is able to control media within its borders, it cannot as easily control what information is available to its citizens overseas.
“After getting the news that the workers would soon be moved to a new construction site in Ukraine, and needed to settle everything by the end of September, many have escaped. It’s not only the construction workers, but also management officials escaping,” said the source.
The construction sites of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East are empty, a source there told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“I know that some North Korean companies are on alert as the officials in charge of worker management escaped one after another,” the second source said.
The problem of workers escaping is not new. Even in times of relative peace, many North Koreans deployed to Russia go missing, according to the second source.
“At the end of each year, results must be reported and the managers must pay the workers their share and forward the rest [to Pyongyang],” the second source said. “However, managers and officials of some companies, who did not receive payment from local companies often escape because they are afraid of punishment they might receive after the review session.”
“North Korean workers live a tired life of despair. They cannot save any money even though they work all day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and then do additional overtime work at night,” said the second source.
“There are frequent cases where disgruntled workers escape, and others escape because they fear punishment.”
Once news came from the North Korean consulate to prepare to be shipped out to Ukraine, escape numbers rose, the second source said.
Russia’s Ambassador to North Koera Alexander Matsegora mentioned the possibility of sending North Korean workers to Ukraine in an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia in July.
There were 21,000 North Korean workers living in Russia as of September 2018, a December 2018 statement from the Russian foreign ministry said. Approximately 19,000 of those were employed at factories, farms and construction sites.
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.
Though sanctions prohibit North Korea from sending workers overseas and preclude countries from issuing work visas to North Koreans, Pyongyang has been known to dispatch workers to China and Russia on short-term student or visitor visas to get around sanctions.