It seems that the issue of what is often described as ‘North Korean forced labor’ is likely to be at the center of media attention in months or years to come. The reasons are clear: in their attempts to impose the toughest sanctions imaginable, U.S. diplomats are working hard to close down labor exports which, indeed, might be a significant source of hard currency earnings for Pyongyang.
Giving the current situation, it is difficult to blame the U.S. for attempting to reduce the financial resources available to North Korea. However, in the peculiar case of labor exports, these acts of economic pressure are often presented as if they are driven not by cold strategic calculations but by humanitarian concerns: worries about the fate of the suffering North Korean workers forced to sell their labor overseas.
This is patently dishonest: the workers have to pay large bribes to be allowed to do what is called ‘slave labor’, and for a majority of them a stint of work overseas may present the only opportunity to raise themselves and their family out of poverty.
It is probably a good time, then, to remember that the story of North Korean workers in Russia is, actually, quite long: in one form or another North Korean labor has been present in Russia for over 70 years.
SPOILS OF WAR
In 1945 the Soviet Union finally found itself in full control of southern Sakhalin, hitherto a well-developed territory of the Japanese Empire whose population exceeded 300,000. It was the era of what the Kremlin called massive population transfers (if one wants to be frank, ethnic cleansing), and it was expected that overwhelming Japanese population of the region would be sent home over the following years, to be eventually replaced by settlers from other parts of the Soviet Union.
However, it soon became clear that these settlers were in no hurry to arrive, and that work at the Japanese-built fisheries, mines, and logging areas would come to a standstill due to an absence of labor. Thus it was decided to begin recruiting workers from the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, which at the time was under direct Soviet military rule.
Between 1946 and 1949 the Soviet military authorities recruited 26,000 North Koreans. This number included both workers and some 5200 of their family members (unlike later periods, the workers were often allowed to travel with their wives and children). Most of the North Koreans were sent to the fisheries and mines of Southern Sakhalin and Kuril islands, but some found themselves further afield in Kamchatka Peninsula.
The workers were told they would soon go back, but the outbreak of the Korean War meant that they had to stay. This was not a problem: many of them liked their new lives and showed little enthusiasm for going back: the Soviet Union of the 1950s was a poor place, but, obviously, it still remained attractive for an unskilled North Korean. Therefore, many North Koreans did what they could to stay in the Russian Far East, and local authorities, facing a grave shortage of labor, were not eager to send them back.
The repatriation of these early labor migrants began in earnest only in the mid-1950s, and was neither easy nor fully successful: a number of former laborers – approximately one thousand or so – managed to stay in the USSR for good, and in due time merged with the Sakhalin Korean community.
This first experiment with organized labor migration demonstrated to the Soviet authorities that a nearby country could provide a good source of cheap and disciplined labor: an attraction almost impossible to resist given the perennial nature of labor shortages in the Soviet/Russian Far East.
In 1957 a new agreement was signed. This time the Soviet authorities would not recruit the workers themselves, but relied on the North Koreans to do it for them. The workers were not sent to fisheries and mines as they were before, but instead were expected to log the forests of Russia’s Khabarovsk Province.
From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, at any given moment, there were between 15,000-20,000 North Korean workers and officials working in the USSR
The 1957 agreement allowed the North Koreans to establish four logging companies, whose personnel would consist exclusively of DPRK citizens. The harvested timber was to be divided between the USSR and North Korea, while the actual logging was to be done by some 5500 North Korean workers and technicians (to be precise, 5317 workers and 329 technicians, engineers, and administrators). The agreement remained operational until 1964, when the North Koreans left. It was a rather small-scale operation, but it paved the path for a permanent operation in the future.
In 1966, Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev secretly met his North Korean counterpart Kim Il Sung in Vladivostok. The two men did not particularly like one another, but the growing chaos of the Cultural Revolution in China had pushed Moscow and Pyongyang to reconcile after a few years of tense, almost hostile, relations.
While the secret 1966 Vladivostok summit was largely about dealing with Mao’s China, Brezhnev and Kim also agreed to start a project which was reminiscent of the 1957 agreement, but on much larger scale. It was decided that the North Korean authorities would start sending North Korean loggers to work in the forests of the Russian Far East. The formal agreement was concluded a few months later and was signed in 1967.
According to the agreement, the Soviet side would log the Russian forests and provide necessary equipment, while the North Korean side would ship workers. The timber was divided between both countries. The exact proportion changed slightly from time to time, but on average, the North Korean side was entitled to 40% of the timber.
MEN AT WORK
Unlike the vast majority of Soviet-Korean joint projects of the period, the timber project was not driven by the strategic considerations and needed no Soviet subsidies to keep it afloat. This made perfect economic sense, and the economic viability of the project ensured its long-term survival. The North Koreans got a supply of timber at a low cost, the Russians solved the perennial problem of labor shortages in Siberia, and the North Korean workers, as we shall see, got good jobs, extremely well-paid by their then-meager standards.
The scale of the project was significant: from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, at any given moment, there were between 15,000-20,000 North Korean workers and officials working in the USSR. Nearly all of them were employed in the timber industry. Unlike earlier periods, families were never allowed to visit – it was a strictly male-only business.
The North Koreans were settled in logging camps, located in remote areas of the Siberian forests. These camps were, essentially, states-within-the-state, with the Soviet authorities avoiding any intervention into the affairs of the camps as long as proper decorum was maintained. Interactions between North Koreans and Russians was discouraged, but at any rate there were few situations where such interaction would be possible: the camps were usually located in remote areas, far away from towns and even larger villages.
If a worker misbehaved in any way, he would be immediately sent home for further investigation and punishment. To deal with emergencies, some larger camps even had small prisons where criminals or dissenters would be held and interrogated until an opportunity to ship them back arose – the Soviet authorities turned a blind eye to the existence of these prisons until the early 1990s. To decrease the likelihood of misbehavior, only married men were eligible for work in Siberia, with their families being, essentially, hostages back home to ensure they would behave themselves.
For the North Koreans, long accustomed to near total rationing, the Soviet Union was a consumer’s paradise
However, most of them had no intention of misbehaving, since the work was extremely attractive for them. The loggers were not doing what the State Department (and some activists) would now describe as ‘forced labor’: a stint in Siberia was a dream job for the average North Korean, and they tried hard to be selected for such a trip. Their reasons, as we shall see, were purely economic: for a common North Korean in the 1970s and 1980s, a work trip overseas was by far the best way to earn a high income and lay the foundation for long-term earthly success.
The North Korean workers were provided free accommodation (a bunk in a rather crowded dorm, often in a log hut) and free food (quite generous and nutritious by North Korean standards). They were also issued work dress and basic everyday items. There were North Korean doctors in the camps, and if a serious injury happened, a logger would be sent to a Soviet hospital nearby.
The loggers were also paid a salary – in Soviet currency, of course. Their wages were very low, with, say, a truck driver making some 50-70 rubles a month, merely 10-15% of what a Soviet driver would be normally paid for the same work. Nonetheless, for the North Korean workers, it was a fortune.
The North Korean authorities, initially, had to force people to go to the Siberian wilderness, but the sight of returning workers changed everything. As a North Korean who saw them in the late 1970s recalls: “They were dressed better than party cadres, they were smoking expensive tobacco with wonderful aromas, they brought delicious snacks we could not even think of.”
This was a period of growing dissatisfaction among the Soviet people about their stagnant living standards and poor access to consumer goods. By the standards of the developed West, the USSR in 1980 was a poor country, but for the North Koreans, long accustomed to near total rationing, the Soviet Union was a consumer’s paradise. Even in a small Siberian town, anybody with some money could easily purchase goods which back in North Korea were beyond the reach of all but the very privileged.
After two years of hard work, a logger could save between 1000 and 2000 rubles – a fortune by North Korean standards. Indeed, in the early 1980s, a refrigerator cost 200-400 rubles, a black-and-white TV set cost 150-250 rubles, and a color TV could be bought for 400 rubles or so, while a really good camera would cost less than 100 rubles. Even a motorbike, then the North Korean equivalent of a Porsche (or perhaps even a private jet) was within the reach of many, since it cost around 1000 rubles.
The North Koreans returned home with containers full of these dream items
There were also cheaper, but still valuable items – like, say, wool cloth or quality cooking utensils, that were of a far better quality than anything regular North Koreans could see back home. It is important that these particular durables (with the possible exception of color TV sets) were easily available in Russia at the time: you did not need connections, a waiting list registration, or bribes to get hold of them.
Thus, the North Koreans returned home with containers full of these dream items. Sometimes such things were bought for personal consumption, but the more savvy loggers (or, rather, their wives) usually preferred to resell Soviet frying pans and sandals, earning huge profits and laying the foundation for many years of comfortable living.
The more adventurous and less responsible types would prefer to show off – say, by cruising the streets of their sleepy town on a Soviet motorbike, crude and heavy but reliable, durable and easy to maintain.
Under Kim Il Sung, North Korean society was relatively free from money-based corruption, even though connections and in-kind exchange of services mattered tremendously. But the local officials who were responsible for the selection of workers saw this as an opportunity, and it became customary that a worker, having returned from a trip, usually gave a very expensive ‘present’ to an official who arranged his selection. Normally this was a TV set, with a price equivalent to 20-35% of the worker’s total earnings, would suffice.
Perestroika in the USSR led to dramatic changes in the labor system, but, contrary to many predictions, export projects survived the tribulations of the 1990s, and began to flourish again around 2005, albeit arranged in a somewhat different way. But this is another story for another day.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Timber Industry by Bernd Thaller on 2017-02-22 15:20:50