The latest round of sanctions passed by the UN Security Council on December 22 include provisions dealing with the North Korean labor. According to the new rules, all DPRK workers must be withdrawn from UN member states within two years.
This gives me a good opportunity to talk about one such worker, and to see why there are good reasons not to be excessively happy about Resolution 2375. Let me introduce you to Mr. Lee, formerly one of 30,000 North Korean workers employed in Russian construction sites and timber camps.
Admittedly, Mr. Lee is not a common worker: while he began on the lowest levels of the hierarchy, in due time he moved up, becoming a junior manager and middleman. Nonetheless, his biography and experience are fairly typical for a North Korean worker in Russia.
If one believes the oft-repeated claims of the Western media and NGOs, North Korean workers overseas are “modern day slaves.” They work under harsh and dangerous conditions, and a large part of their wages is taken by the government. While these statements are partially correct (indeed conditions are harsh and a large slice of wages is taken away by the government), the major message of such claims is patently untrue.
Work overseas has been the dream of every able-bodied North Korean for decades, and only people with the right connections have any chance of being selected for such jobs.
Furthermore, even these lucky people still have to pay bribes for the privilege of being allowed to Siberia or Arabian Peninsula. One should not be surprised: work overseas provides – or, given the UNCS Resolution 2397, should we say ‘provided’? – many North Koreans with the only realistic chance to raise their families out of poverty.
GOOD SONGBUN HELPS
Like many others, Mr. Lee had a chance to go to Siberia, first of all, because he was lucky enough to be born into the right family. By right of birth, he belonged to the top 25% of North Korean society.
In other words, his family was a rough equivalent of the Western solidly middle-class family: not particularly powerful or rich, but definitely more powerful, more affluent and more privileged than the average North Korean.
Born in the early 1970s, Mr. Lee was in due time drafted into the North Korean military. The family background and personal contacts of his father ensured that he spent his obligatory ten years in uniform serving in a privileged unit, whose well-fed and well-dressed soldiers barely noticed the massive famine which struck the country in the late 1990s.
Connections and the impeccable family background of Mr. Lee helped a lot: he got his job for a ridiculously low bribe of $300
When Mr. Lee returned home, his family was engaged in a reasonably successful small-scale business – like the majority of the North Korean families in the late 1990s and 2000s. Actually, it was his mother who was engaged in trade operations while his father continued to work at a government office. Mr. Lee’s father, essentially a dignified clerk, was not paid particularly well, but still received full-scale food rations, and understood that his position provided him with useful connections and status.
Upon finishing his military service, Mr. Lee for a while was not sure what he was going to do. Theoretically, he could follow one of two possible career paths: he could get into a good college and upon graduation embark on an official career, becoming a party cadre of some kind. On the other hand, he could forsake the old style official careers and completely immerse into his mother’s business.
He chose neither of these two likely paths. With the help of his father, he entered a company which trained workers to be sent overseas.
Needless to say, such a lucrative job required not only a good family background but also the ability to bribe relevant officials, with the size of bribes varying greatly.
The company where Mr. Lee got his employment specialized in sending construction workers to the Middle East or Russia (China does not employ North Korean construction workers). Both the Middle East and Russia are seen as more lucrative destinations, far superior to China: in 2005 the normal bribe for getting a job in the company was $500.
In some cases, candidates had to pay significantly more, up to $1000, but this was deemed necessary only when the candidate had a somewhat suspect family background: extra funds were necessary to make sure that the security police officer would look the other way. Connections and the impeccable family background of Mr. Lee helped a lot: he got his job for a ridiculously low bribe of $300.
During the training period, which lasted for a couple of years, Mr. Lee learned some basic skills of a construction worker. The salary was negligible, so he made a living working in his mother’s business. Then, around 2007, having finished all necessary training and ideological study, he found himself in a large city in eastern Russia.
Initially, he went there as a common semi-skilled worker. Unlike China, where North Korean workers stay in prison-like conditions and are not normally allowed to walk the streets unsupervised (actually, they are seldom allowed to walk the streets at all), in Russia North Korean workers enjoy a great level of freedom.
Some are assigned to larger construction sites and live under constant surveillance. But the majority of the workers are allowed to wander around quite freely: they are even supposed to arrange their own accommodation, food, and run their daily life. They are also allowed to find additional after-hours employment.
The local North Korean managers make deals with the Russian companies and individuals and send their workers to do construction and interior work. They build, paint, plaster, place tiles. Among the Russian businesses of the region, North Korean workers are seen as providers of cheap labor of acceptable quality.
In Russia North Korean workers enjoy a great level of freedom
As a laborer, Mr. Lee was supposed to give a fixed amount of money to his supervisor: half of what he was paid. This did not prevent him, however, from saving $1200 in his first year. Back then, this was a pretty common level of savings for the average North Korean worker in the Russian Far East regions.
This means that after a labor trip to Russia, a worker would normally come back home with a few thousand dollars in his pocket. In 2007 0r 2009 North Korea, this amount would be more than sufficient to start a modest family business which was to be operated by the lucky worker’s wife. All workers sent to Russia had to be married, since the existence of de facto hostages back home was seen as a useful guarantee against possible defection or other misbehavior.
Mr. Lee was surprised by what he saw in Russia. The living standards of Russia did not impress him that deeply, however: like nearly all North Koreans of his generation, he was perfectly aware that neighboring countries enjoyed much higher living standards than his home country, so, if anything, before his arrival, he had somewhat exaggerated expectations about Russia’s living standards. The Russia he actually saw was a very affluent country, but it was probably not as rich as he expected it to be.
However, it was the individual freedom which impressed Mr. Lee the most. He was astounded to discover that all Russians could freely go to any place within their country without any kind of paperwork. The even greater surprise for him was to learn that Russian citizens, including people of modest incomes, see overseas travel as something natural and often expect to spend their next vacations somewhere in Thailand or Southern China.
Mr. Lee was also impressed by the state of Russian infrastructure: indeed, even countryside roads were usually paved, even the most remote villages had a round-the-clock supply of electricity, and running water was seen as something quite natural even in the humblest town dwellings.
Of course, Mr. Lee was careful with what he said in public, especially in presence of his fellow co-workers.
Before North Korean workers are dispatched overseas, they undergo lengthy political training sessions. It is explained that while overseas, they should use all opportunities to extol the virtues of the North Korean socialism and the glory of the Leader. Workers are also told that under no circumstances should they have any kind of interaction with the South Koreans since virtually all South Koreans they encounter overseas would be spies dispatched by the evil NIS. They are also told that they should avoid listening to foreign broadcasts and watching foreign, especially South Korean, movies.
It was the individual freedom which impressed Mr. Lee the most
These rules are often ignored, with the ban on interaction with South Koreans being the only exception. Workers are not particularly enthusiastic about spreading Juche propaganda even though, like pretty much every normal person, they are sometimes quite happy to tell foreigners something good about their own country. They also often listen to Korean language broadcasts, with the KBS and RFA being their favorites – and secretly enjoy ideologically unhealthy Western and South Korean movies of all kinds, with martial arts and erotica being especially popular.
The North Korean workers see what was going around them and draw their own conclusions, normally of the type their supervisors would not be happy about. However, they do not talk politics – as Mr. Lee himself emphasizes. These people go overseas with a clear goal of making as much money as possible for their families – and, indeed, they are making very good money by the standards of their country. Even after the obligatory contributions to the state are paid, the average worker still makes roughly five times the amount he (seldom she) could realistically hope to earn back home.
This makes overseas jobs extremely attractive. For the average North Korean, without relatives overseas, friends in high places or significant investment capital, a tour of hard work overseas provides the only chance to raise one’s families above the poverty level and successfully get into the ranks of the emerging North Korean middle class. So, they remain silent about what they are learning, even though virtually none return home without some serious change in their worldview.
Mr. Lee spoke some Russian by the time of his arrival and he proved to be quite skilled in foreign languages. After a few years, he spoke the language fluently. On top of that, he proved to be quite good at commerce and negotiating, so after a few years of working as a common laborer, he became a manager. Technically, his position did not change: according to the official papers, he remained a worker, but in real life he became one of the few hundreds of go-betweens whose job was to look for profitable contracts for the North Korean work teams. It was tacitly assumed that he would take a nice cut of the contract for himself.
These people go overseas with a clear goal of making as much money as possible for their families
He eventually acquired an office with a Russian secretary and developed reasonably good connections with the local businesspeople and officials, proving himself to be a good businessman by getting lucrative contracts. He was also supposed to make a larger contribution to the state, but his income still increased dramatically. In spite of his reasonably luxurious lifestyle in Russia, every year he could save between $7000 and $10,000, which made him modestly rich by the standards of North Korea in the early 2010s. This amount helped his family businesses, as well as the education of his children and his close relatives.
Mr. Lee enriched himself while working overseas and he did everything possible to stay in Russia as long as he could – the same is applicable to the vast majority of his fellow workers.
It looks like though that the era of the North Korean workers abroad is coming to an end. Resolution 2397 required them to be sent back within two years – and both China and Russia supported this resolution. It seems that very soon, the North Korean workers will go back home. If one takes the media claims seriously, one should welcome it as the ‘liberation of the modern-day slaves’, but many will likely be angry about what is happening to them.
Indeed, they know they are going to work for far smaller wages under significantly harsher labor conditions. Their hopes of raising their families above the poverty level have been ruined in an instant. Perhaps they will blame their own government for such a blow, but many will put the blame on the scheming and hostile outside world, which is once again trying to corner what they see as their small but proud North Korean state.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: CPC_8943 by nknews_hq on 2016-10-05 14:07:00