In academic circles, it’s well-known that there have been North Korean workers in the Russian Far East since the 1960s – it was then that the first logging camps appeared in the wilderness of the Siberian forests.
However, what’s less well known is that the 1967-1991 logging project had a precedent: in 1946-1950 and then again in 1957-1964 large numbers of North Korean workers were shipped to the Soviet Far East.
The story of these workers has begun to garner academic interest, ever since a number of Russian historians (mostly those working in smaller universities and colleges in the Far East) emerged from the archives with fresh findings. However, having mostly been published in regional journals, this story remains largely unknown – a pity, since the pre-1967 labor migration was an interesting story indeed.
Soviet interest in North Korean workers was easy to understand: the Russian Far East, in spite of being twice the size of the Indian Subcontinent, has always combined few inhabitants with an abundance of natural resources.
Plentiful labor was badly needed to tap this natural wealth, but, in spite of noisy propaganda campaigns and promised material rewards, neither in the 1940s nor in later eras were the Russians in a hurry to move to the wilderness of the Far East. Massive human losses during the Second World War further aggravated the situation.
By the late 1940s, southern Sakhalin, annexed from Japan in 1945, was essentially empty: the Japanese were being forcefully repatriated, while the few locals remaining (mostly Koreans, who’d made up some 10% of the pre-war population) were too few to maintain the island’s mines and fisheries.
The standard length of North Korean workers’ contracts was one, two, or three years
Beginning in 1946, the Soviet military authorities, then in charge of Korea, began to recruit workers in what was then the Soviet “zone of occupation” in northern Korea. These workers were to be employed in the fishing and timber industries of Sakhalin and the Kuril islands, as well as the Kamchatka peninsula.
Initially it was presumed the North Korean workers would, if they wanted, be accompanied by their families. However, the Soviet authorities soon changed their mind and refused to accept family members.
A few families snuck in regardless. The standard length of North Korean workers’ contracts was one, two or three years, and upon expiration of contract, they were supposed to be sent back.
Workers were overwhelmingly recruited in North and South Hamgyong province, which, as the contemporary (then classified) Soviet documents explained, in the late 1940s faced the direst economic situation, and an endemic lack of food. The Soviet administrators assumed that they would help the emerging North Korean regime by providing people in these areas with relatively well-paid jobs.
Recruitment was done by the Soviet Civil Administration of northern Korea, which also arranged (and paid for) the workers’ transfer to their future places of employment. There was minimal involvement from the nascent North Korean administration.
The entire model was, essentially, the application in northern Korea of a system which in the official Soviet parlance of the time was known as ‘organizovannyj nabor’, or ‘orgnabor’ for short (literally, ‘organized recruitment’). Under this model, state agencies launched domestic recruitment campaigns hiring workers to do difficult and dangerous jobs in remote locations for a certain period of time.
Those who signed up for ‘orgnabor’ usually could not leave their workplace until the expiration of their work contracts. People were incentivized to sign up by high wages and other benefits. The ‘orgnabor’ system was vital in developing the vast expanses of Siberia and the Russian Far North, especially in 1930-1970. Essentially, the North Koreans were treated as Soviet citizens who chose to sign up for ‘orgnabor.’
Throughout 1947 alone, some 38,000 North Koreans arrived in the USSR – 1947 perhaps saw the largest ever concentration of North Korean labor in the USSR/Russia. Unfortunately, the total for the entire 1946-1949 period is unknown, but given the now available, though incomplete, evidence one can speculate that at the time between 50,000 and 80,000 North Korean workers arrived in the USSR.
In 1947, some 16,300 North Koreans -that is, nearly half of that year’s total of 38,000- were sent to work in the Kamchatka fishing industry. The Okhotsk Sea and Low Amur fisheries received another 7,900 North Korean workers, while yet another 10,400 were sent to the Sakhalin and Kuril islands.
Given its context during during the height of Stalinism, it might sound strange that in the 1940s North Korean workers actually enjoyed a level of individual freedom of which their later logger brethren (1967-1991) could only dream of. Of course, being foreign nationals the workers faced numerous restrictions.
Their inability to speak Russian and their distinct lifestyle also kept them sufficiently isolated from the locals (and, in such locations, there were not many locals anyway). However, at that stage North Korean authorities had little, if any, control over these workers, and Soviet control was relatively lax.
Salaries and wages were paid directly to the workers, and did not differ much from the wages paid to Soviet nationals with comparable skills. Workers were allowed, but not required, to wire a part of their earnings back home, through Soviet and North Korean banking systems (then closely integrated). The rest could be taken back as cash once their contracts expired and they departed for home.
One suspects the Soviet authorities were ambivalent about sending the workers back
The workers presented an occasional worry to Soviet state security – after all, the project meant the presence of a significant number of foreign nationals, which in those times was seen as a security threat almost by default.
For example, in 1949 the then-head of the Sakhalin border guards reported to his superior that the Koreans working on the Kuril islands might be “used by a foreign intelligence service,” and hence he recommended their removal from this sensitive border area.
That said, Stalin’s bureaucracy had limited power in such distant and underdeveloped lands: authorities were often unable to prevent the workers from overstaying their contract period – and many workers showed no inclination to rush back home.
In some cases, though, one suspects the Soviet authorities were ambivalent about sending the workers back: the thought of holding onto this source of cheap labor must have been tempting indeed.
It bears remembering that around the same time, as Yulia Din’s recent research has demonstrated, Sakhalin authorities successfully sabotaged the planned repatriation of their batch of Koreans, whom they saw as a vital source of labor. Indeed in the late 1940s, some 2500 North Korean workers were granted Soviet citizenship, gaining the right to permanent residence.
In the end, it was only the outbreak of the Korean War which halted the project, yet those workers present in the USSR in the summer of 1950 continued to stay there even after their contracts expired.
There was no repatriation of workers during the entire 1950-53 war period, and repatriation resumed only after the end of hostilities. In many cases, repatriation was not totally voluntary: the Soviet Far East, in spite of being poor and underdeveloped by Soviet standards, was nonetheless seen by many North Koreans as a better place to live than their impoverished (and hungry) native villages. Many North Korean workers did what they could to postpone or entirely avoid repatriation.
The vast majority of the late 1940s arrivals were repatriated by the early 1960s, but an unknown number succeeded in their attempts to avoid going back – including, presumably, the 2,500 lucky enough to get Soviet citizenship mentioned above.
The best way to acquire citizenship or residence rights was to marry a Soviet citizen – not an impossible task, given the gross gender imbalance in post-war USSR.
While the North Korean authorities probably wanted the workers returned eventually, at that stage the non-returnees were not a major concern for either side. North Korea still saw the USSR as their patron, and did not expect the existence of some non-returnees to lead to any political or ideological complications. Anyhow, as previously stated, at that stage Pyongyang had little, if any, control over the North Korean workers in the USSR.
At the end of the Korean War, Soviet authorities revived the labor importing project almost immediately. Given the shortage of labor in the Far East remained as acute as ever, the importation of North Korean workers was initially expected to be a part of wider scheme of attracting unskilled and semi-skilled workers from adjacent ‘friendly’ countries to counteract this shortage.
Many North Korean workers did what they could to postpone or entirely avoid repatriation
In this spirit, the mid-1950s also saw the USSR began to bring Chinese workers to the Far East, largely destined for the fishing and timber industries. Around 1955-57, the first groups of Chinese workers, some 2000, arrived in the Soviet Far East.
Grander schemes with greater numbers of workers were discussed at the time. However, the late 1950s deterioration of political relations between Moscow and Beijing brought this plan to a halt.
Under these circumstances, more North Korean workers were brought in as well. From July 1957, North Korean loggers were employed by timber companies near Khabarovsk, and more workers came in 1958 and 1959 – a total of nearly 4900 North Korean citizens. It was 1964 before they returned home. This time however, the operation was very different from the late 1940s.
This time, workers were selected by the North Korean authorities, without much Soviet involvement, came in supervised groups, and were employed almost exclusively in logging. For the workers, this was a sign of things to come – in 1967 the era of North Korean logging camps began in earnest, continuing a good 25 years.
Edited by Alessandro Ford and Oliver Hotham
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1655 words of this article.
Featured Image: IMG_3892 by beggs on 2008-11-08 13:15:00