UPDATE : December 14, 2016, Personal information on an unnamed North Korean defector, who gave testimony at the seminar, has been removed at the request of Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB)
Many of the around 50,000 North Korean workers in Russia cannot pay growing debts due to extortion from Pyongyang and difficult working conditions, South Korea’s Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) said on Monday.
With a selection procedure rooted in bribery and hinged on personal relationships with bureaucrats, workers are incurring personal debt before they even leave the North, Park Chan-hong, a senior assistant at NKDB, said at the forum, based on in-depth interviews with 50 North Korean defectors who had worked in Russia.
The number of North Korean construction workers is increasing and has reached around 50,000, while that of dispatched loggers has fallen to 2,000 or less since 2010, Park added.
This is largely due to financial incentives: speaking at the seminar, Park said that loggers reportedly earn $30 while construction workers are paid $50-60 a month for their work. North Korean workers tended to work 12 to 18 hours a day in the forestry sector and from 12 to 20 hours in the construction industry.
The amount that the construction workers can put aside for themselves is “much less than $800” a year, but it is “more than double” that of the loggers, Park said.
“The North Korean company remits 80% of the money received from the Russian corporation from the production of wood to the North Korean regime and further deducts food and other costs from the remaining 20%, meaning that only 7-8% was paid to the North Korean workers,” Park said, quoting an unnamed defector who worked as “a party secretary” in the forestry sector.
“The wage is not paid on an hourly basis, except for some managerial jobs, but rather is determined in proportion to production.”
Amount of cash sent to Pyongyang | Source: Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), edited by NK News
Workers, as a result, are trapped in poverty: North Korean companies and authorities “extorted most of the workers’ remuneration” and workers’ salaries are “far below the Russian minimum wage level,” Park said.
“30% of the income raised by construction workers” was sent to the North Korean authorities, but the rest was used for other operational cost and wages, he added.
The difference in the share of remittance stems from the fact that many of the North Korean construction companies are located in city areas with high costs of living.
“Assuming that the number of workers dispatched to Russia is 50,000, the amount of money transferred to North Korean authorities is approximately ’10 million dollars per month or 120 million dollars annually’,” Park writes in his new book: “North Korean Overseas Laborers in Russia: Condition of Labor and Human Rights.”
North Korean construction workers must pay $700 to their North Korean employers as a “loyalty fund” to get prepaid living expenses worth $50-60, Park said, citing two defectors who had worked between 2014 to 2015 in Russia.
Park and another defector at the seminar said that the individual debt of most workers rose as they failed to meet the expectations of a “heavy workload which is beyond their abilities.”
“There was no such thing as a labor contract. The manager assigned $700 as a portion we have to offer to the party. But Russian skilled workers can’t finish up [to earn $700] even if they work from noon to midnight,” an unnamed male North Korean defector, who worked in Russia, said at the seminar.
“They (construction workers) plunge into the red for the first two or three months, and it’s difficult for them to receive a salary for the first ten months as they fail to meet quotas and have to pay for their flight ticket,” the male defector added.
North Korean overseas workers, as a result, acquire extra money outside the workplace by doing “part-time or temporary contract jobs” – in violation of the North’s internal regulations and Russian law.
“It’s difficult to maintain a basic standard of living, housing, food and basic household goods with the wages that the workers earn,” Park says in his book.
“Additionally, most of the dispatched workers are forced to remit money to their families living in North Korea, as the debts taken in order to provide bribes during the selection of process are a ‘significant burden’ on the family.”
The male defector said he had seen “his colleague dying from overwork as he borrowed money for bribery and tried to repay principal and 10% interest per month.”
North Korean workers can work at part-time jobs through “collusion with the managers” as managers received bribes and confiscated goods from escaped workers, Park added.
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