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Among Northeast Asia’s major cities, Vladivostok presents an unusual kind of openness for overseas North Koreans.
DPRK workers in the city, branded “slave labor” by some media outlets, have greater independence than in neighboring China and will happily talk to locals.
Their activities as legitimate participants in the local economy are also widely discussed and DPRK-run companies do not shy away from advertising their services, although they often have to battle a negative reputation in doing so.
A trip to the local North Korean café reveals a similar picture of relatively relaxed DPRK citizens enjoying themselves and keen to present Korean and “Asian” culture to a Russian audience.
Mr. Cho and Mr. Pak chat to one another as the No. 23 bus pushes uphill through Vladivostok’s Vtoraya Rechka district.
We are already a significant distance from both the central Semenovskaya terminus where they got on and from the construction site on Snegovaya Street where they work, but the pair have good reason for coming this far: Mr. Pak needs new winter shoes. A Chinese-run market on the edge of town is going to be the cheapest place to buy them.
Hearing the two behind me discussing the various landmarks we are passing, I turn and ask where they are from. I ask in Korean, but “Severnaya Koreya” – “North Korea” – comes the answer from Mr. Cho in his competent but accented Russian.
He grins through a mouthful of gold teeth which, combined with his black shiny jacket, leather man-pouch and black wooly hat, gives him the air of someone it would be unwise to argue with.
But as so often with DPRK-related matters, a menacing external impression conceals a much more nuanced and complex picture. Mr. Cho is very friendly and talkative.
“Yes, that’s right it’s construction we do at Snegovaya,” he says as we discuss the men’s place of work.
“We live in a dormitory on the building site. I’m an engineer and supervisor and Mr. Pak is one of my workers.”
The seniority is evident: Mr. Cho, who is in his 50s, is better dressed and appears more self-assured than the younger and still rather green-looking Mr. Pak. This is not surprising given how long the older man has been in the country.
“Russia’s great…although the climate is different from Korea”
“I left Pyongyang seven years ago,” Mr. Cho continues, “and after a few years working and teaching myself Russian in Nakhodka, I came to Vladivostok.” The freight terminus to the Trans-Siberian, Nakhodka lies to the north of Vladivostok and is also the location of the DPRK’s consulate in the Russian Far East.
I ask him how he likes Russia. “It’s great,” he intones enthusiastically, “although the climate is different from Korea.”
It is climatic concerns which have led Mr. Cho to accompany Mr. Pak shopping in the first place. Vladivostok is subject to several massive snowstorms each winter so having sturdy footwear, particularly if working in a grueling outdoor job like construction, is key.
GETTING A REPUTATION
A great many of Vladivostok’s 2,000-3,000 North Koreans work in building and decorating, key industries in a city with a large and dilapidated Soviet housing stock.
Their activities have a mixed reputation, however, as veteran Vladivostok journalist Andrey Kalachinsky noted recently on local news portal Vladnews, public opinion suggests that North Koreans work quickly but sloppily and make unreasonable demands for extra food, cigarettes and vodka.
Online discussion of how to choose painters, decorators and builders (which exhibits a curious fixation on ethnicity) concurs, explaining that the North Koreans’ obligation to channel a monthly fixed sum to their superiors forces them to work quickly, and carelessly, in order to earn something for themselves.
Korean workers’ reported lack of Russian-language competence also comes in for criticism, particularly when compared to their Kyrgyz or Uzbek competitors.
“Trust professionals from North Korea to do your renovation”
But North Korean-run operations are pushing back against such accusations. One such company, Remont Korea, has launched an online charm offensive which at times is more offensive than charming.
Their clean and well-presented Russian-language website advertises a wide range of services, from full kitchen renovations to advice on selecting the best toilet. It also seeks to address doubts about the benefits of hiring North Korean workers head-on, stating:
“The services of professional decorators from North Korea enjoy particularly high demand. In contrast to spoilt Russian specialists and barely literate guest workers from southern former-Soviet countries, Koreans work unusually professionally, carefully and in full compliance with global quality standards” (emphasis in the original).
The tag line for the site, which also includes pictures of North Koreans at work on various projects is: “Trust professionals from North Korea to do your renovation.”
Such public advertisement from a DPRK entity is unusual (even if the dismissal of rivals from other ethnic groups is not), as are its enthusiastic claims to be fully integrated into global systems.
Such features of North Korean business here point to their singular position in Vladivostok. Perhaps uniquely in the region they feel they have a reasonable chance of being accepted on their own terms, and consequently seem less cautious or keen to keep a low profile in their engagement with their host community than elsewhere.
North Korean workers, whose jobs are much sough-after back in the DPRK, can often be seen in small groups walking around Vladivostok, much freer than imprisoned “slaves” they have sometimes been labeled
Mr. Cho and Mr. Pak’s two-man shopping trip was a sign of this, for although political trust very likely still came into consideration, their excursion was far from unusual.
North Korean workers, whose jobs are much sough-after back in the DPRK, can often be seen in small groups walking around Vladivostok, much freer than imprisoned “slaves” they have sometimes been labeled.
The presence of these Koreans about town unabashedly chatting and happy to talk to foreigners about where they come from goes against the perceived “secrecy” which DPRK citizens are often thought to preserve when abroad. Even in Yanbian, the Korean region of China to the west of Vladivostok, Korean workers by and large move around in larger groups and many rarely leave their accommodations.
As the bus neared my stop Mr. Cho asked how it was I knew Korean, and I mentioned I was studying it. “Oh, are you planning to go to South Korea?” he asked, using Hanguk, the name South Koreans prefer for their country but which is generally shunned in the North in preference for Namchoson (nam meaning “South” in Korean and Chosun being the North’s preferred name for itself).
I wasn’t sure, I replied. “Well, good luck anyway!” Mr. Cho said. “Keep practicing!”
The South’s economic boom has in recent years vastly increased the appeal of going there for many from Vladivostok, whose urban space is conversely increasingly full of Koreana.
The bus Mr. Cho, Mr. Pak and I had been on was, like all such vehicles in the city, a second-hand South Korean import, brought from Seoul or Busan. Likely symbolizing apathy rather than any particular love for Korean culture, many of these still bear their (now faded) frilly curtains, onboard advertisements and even route maps from their previous incarnations.
Vladivostok’s active South Korean consulate, whose presence is thought locally to be the main reason why the DPRK’s diplomatic representation has exiled itself to Nakhodka, also sponsors regular cultural events.
The day after meeting Messrs. Cho and Pak, another South Korean-made bus rumbled me towards the tip of Vladivostok’s tapering peninsula where a 19th-century lighthouse perches on a thin spit of land.
Past the local branch of Bank of China, opposite the city’s container port, and sharing a tired-looking tower block with a dental practice, this was the location of the Pyongyang Café, Vladivostok’s answer to the more numerous DPRK restaurants over the nearby Chinese border.
Unlike its counterparts in China, however, Pyongyang Café has a rich atmosphere of rustic “Asianness” conveyed by a busy interior of lavish floral murals, curly rooftops bearing plastic pumpkins, mock shoji screens (a rather Japanese touch) and two stone statues of medieval Korean warriors guarding the main entrance. This appeal to stereotypical scenes of Korea as an Asian country for Russian eyes marks another departure from how the DPRK presents itself elsewhere in the region.
Adding to the impression created by the global standard-loving builders that Vladivostok is where the DPRK meets the world, the café accepts Visa and Mastercard, and has a diverse trilingual Korean-Russian-English menu offering Korean dishes to be accompanied by Spanish, Chilean and French wine, Armenian cognac, Russian vodka and Asahi beer from Japan.
Most interestingly, there is also Hite beer from South Korea, or, as the menu prefers it, from simply “Korea.”
Such cosmopolitan offerings are a necessary part of any respectable dining experience in the Russian Far East and once again set the place apart from Chinese analogues. Over the border similar establishments focus more on dancing and belting out Cultural Revolution classics than on luxurious alcoholic drinks.
But music is a feature of Pyongyang Café too and as I entered one of the four North Korean girls working there was strumming languidly on an acoustic guitar trying to learn the romantic song Roads of Love (Dorogi lyubvi) from the 1988 Soviet film Naval Cadets, Charge! (Gardemariny vpered!).
“It’s my favorite song,” she said, grinning, although her gentle efforts were periodically drowned out by booming and wailing as people opened the door to the noraebang karaoke room adjoining the main dining area. As is an almost nightly occurrence at the café, a group of North Korean businessmen were unwinding by shouting their way through a few Juche-inspired hits.
As snatches of the loud music occasionally emanated from the room, I chatted to Nadya who, like Mr. Cho, reported being a fan of Russia. “I’ve been here seven years,” she said, “it’s pretty good.”
But our conversation was interrupted by a drunk man stumbling in and making a zigzagging beeline for my table. As Nadya retreated he gestured. “Can I sit?” he said. I said I didn’t mind.
Flight from the DPRK remains an important concern, but the story of the overseas North Koreans working legally and, it seems, relatively contentedly in Russia is less told
Igor was from Odessa, a trained accountant, escapee from a revolution he opposed, and now a Vladivostok down-and-out. He related his story of departure from Ukraine, his family history, and his appreciation for President Putin before concluding, “I’m Russian. Then Maidan happened and I became a foreigner on my own land.”
People at opposite ends of the Ukrainian political spectrum would consider Igor either a “refugee” or a “fugitive,” and his presence in the restaurant made for a curious juxtaposition of situations as such labels are much more often applied to North Koreans.
Flight from the DPRK remains an important concern, but the story of the overseas North Koreans working legally and, it seems, relatively contentedly in Russia is less told.
As Igor wandered off to try his inebriated charms on the waitresses (a regular – and futile – activity, according to Nadya) the girls dealt with it in the same relaxed manner most North Koreans seemed to have in this Russian port town.
I paid for my meal and watery Hite and took an old South Korean bus back into town.
By NK News borderlands correspondent. Names have been changed to protect identities in this article.
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue