A company in Russia’s Far East employing North Koreans has gone against the flow with its marketing strategy, by making its workers’ nationality a primary selling point, NK News has learned.
Remont Korea specializes in what appear to be high quality renovations, and flouts the regular secrecy normally surrounding DPRK laborers abroad, instead advertising their skills on a slick (Russian only) website complete with a “chat with us” application.
“(We) have come to work in the city of Vladivostok from North Korea. Most of us are well versed in any repairs associated with any premises and apartments. The experience and professionalism in the repair of apartments, we received at home while studying at building schools and after working in Korea on construction sites,” the website’s “about us” section reads.
While a representative from the company declined to be interviewed, they did confirm on Monday that the company was Russian owned and employed North Koreans.
“(We) have come to work in the city of Vladivostok from North Korea…Most of us are well versed in any repairs associated with any premises and apartments”
WORK IT OUT
The DPRK’s exports of laborers as a way to earn currency is well documented, with hard hitting media and NGO reports over the years shedding light on thousands of workers toiling in dangerous jobs, and in tough conditions.
Further investigations have indicated the North’s foreign labor network is growing wider, with its work force sent to Poland, Malta and even as far Uruguay. But the Russian Far East is a more common destination, where North Koreans frequently work in large logging camps.
Investigative journalists and NGO workers often need tenacity to shed light on the North’s labor campaigns abroad. They interview defectors, pull strings to obtain official paperwork and in some cases, investigate shady deaths. The presence of North Koreans workers in foreign countries is usually occluded and sometimes flatly denied.
“North Korean workers with official work visas end up always in local companies, like in Poland where they also work on construction sites of the private companies that build apartments. However, they do not advertise this,” Joanna Hosaniak, the Deputy Director General at the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights told NK News.
“On the contrary, media approached the supervising engineers (in Poland) and they claimed they had not seen any North Koreans on their construction.”
But Remont Korea defies convention and takes the opposite tack, instead leveraging a positive, apparently locally generated reputation for high quality refurbishment and construction work.
The company’s website has numerous references to North Korean skills in the sector, which says they have added “vast” experience and knowledge over their seven years of operation.
The reviews section of the site appears to corroborate the workmanship claims, with four pages of positive comments and five-star reviews. The latest was posted on March 16 this year, and the earliest in 2013.
“North Koreans are well known for their skills in home interior repair work and renovation. I have interviewed numerous former loggers who escaped from logging camps in the Russian Far East. While roaming around Russia for years prior to finding their way to South Korea, most of them did this type of work,” Greg Scarlatoiu Executive Director Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) told NK News.
While Remont Korea’s website is complete with a blog, repair tips, a photo of the Korean team and previous work, a second site linked at the bottom page contains further information on the organizers and even the company’s social media presence.
Remontvanoy.ru advertises the same renovation services, with a similar emphasis on the Korean workforce. But the contacts section at the bottom of the page includes links to the company’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
Both pages include the same logo at the top of the page, a North Korean flag next to a construction orientated take on the Workers’ Party symbol, replacing the sickle and brush with a wrench and a screwdriver, but leaving the hammer.
The Facebook page’s introduction section even reads “from Pyongyang, North Korea”, though bizarrely uses an image of South Korean actor Ahn Sung-ki as the profile photo.
The two accounts are also active, with frequent portfolio posts and adverts for service. The last Facebook update was posted on Monday, while the Twitter account has 1411 followers and has tweeted nearly 12,000 times.
The advertising and social media outreach paints a very different picture to the one usually associated with the use of North Korean labor in foreign countries.
“(With a Russian investor) it makes more sense that he (would) want to advertise to have more profit in particular with such business like construction,” said Hosaniak, the human rights activist, about the open advertisement of the firms DPRK labor force. “I suppose they want to tap into private citizens who need people for construction or renovation of their houses.
“If (the owner) mentions that it is North Korean labor – people will know that such services are then cheaper than local ones,” Hosaniak added.
But, Hosaniak warns, it is not clear from the website if it is always the same group of North Koreans working for the company or whether the labor force is cycled back to the DPRK.
HIGH QUALITY, LOW PRICE
Notably, the glossy website and public profile contrasts with the usual secrecy in place to hide poor working conditions, but does not guarantee better ones.
Remont advertises the competitive nature of prices, implying they are below what local traders might charge for the same quality of workmanship. Tiling jobs start at $15 dollars for example, with prices climbing to over $500 for a whole bathroom.
“Hello, we are Korean craftsmen that make high-quality and low-cost repair of apartments in Vladivostok, at an affordable price,” a banner on the site reads.
“Hello, we are Korean craftsmen that make high-quality and low-cost repair of apartments in Vladivostok, at an affordable price”
Remont Korea also says prospective clients can contact them from 9 am to 9 pm, a long work day by anyone’s reckoning, and seemingly beyond that allowed by Russia’s labor laws. Though it is not clear if the company’s employees spend similar hours on work sites.
The FAQ section of the site also says the staff can work through the region’s bitter winters, and is happy to dispatch workers to towns up to 80km away.
But without an interview with one of the company’s owners NK News could not independently verify the exact relationship between Remont Korea and the DPRK government, or if any of the usual remittances for labor are sent back to the authorities.
Even large scale work contracts might not be handled directly by Pyongyang, so smaller enterprises could perhaps have less standard agreements in place.
“(Contracts) are not necessarily made at the central government level. Sometimes even larger logging contracts are executed with the local, and not central authorities,” Scarlatoiu told NK News.
Nonetheless North Korean labor abroad has recently come into the cross hairs of the U.S. government as a possible sanctions target.
Frequent allegations of slave labor continue to ratchet up international pressure on DPRK workers abroad, and if the U.S. or UN pass further sanctions, Remont Korea’s selling point could well lose its luster.
Featured image from Remont Korea’s Twitter