The city of Vladivostok, the administrative center of the huge (and sparsely populated) Primorsky Krai region, sits in the close vicinity of Russia’s border with Korea and China.
As the crow flies, just 130 km away is the railway bridge which connects Russian and North Korea. Given both the peculiarities of the local geography and the sorry (albeit improved) state of the local roads, the car trip would take about four hours – still a rather short drive by the standards of eastern Russia.
One would expect that in such environment the “Korean factor” would be much felt in the region, but this is not the case. Vladivostok, in spite of being the only significant Russian city on the Pacific coast, remains rather devoid of East Asian influences. Its population is predominantly Slavonic, even though Asian tourists are increasingly seen on its streets.
Once upon a time, however, things were different.
The city’s name says it all: “Vladivostok” can be loosely translated from Russian as “Lord of the East.” The city was established in 1860 as a naval base, and by the early 1900 it had a booming Asian population.
There were Chinese workers who lived in their own quarters where local authorities had, well, little actual authority. Most were temporary labor migrants, unskilled workers who came to the boom town to work hard, earn money, and then move home, but some were engaged in trade. As time went, more and more chose to stay in the city.
“Vladivostok” can be loosely translated from Russian as “Lord of the East”
There were Japanese – tailors, photographers, but also prostitutes. By 1900 Japanese women dominated the brothels of the port city. There was nothing special about this: in those days ‘karayuki-san,’ as outbound migrant sex workers were known in Japan, dominated the trade in the entire region.
And of course, there were Koreans – by the time of the 1917 Communist revolution, some 100,000 lived in Russia, overwhelmingly in the vicinity of Vladivostok. Most were poor farmers from Korea’s northern provinces, who came to Russia in search of arable land and reasonable administration.
Unlike the Chinese, the Koreans came to stay for good, bringing their families, often converting to the Orthodox Christianity (a sign of their new, Russified identity), and renting large spaces of the arable land.
In the Posiet district, located right on the border, a hundred kilometers south-west of Vladivostok, the Koreans in the 1920s constituted well over 90% of the total population. Vladivostok itself had a large Korean neighborhood, boasting Korean newspapers, publishing houses, and schools.
When the Communists came to power in 1917, they still took the Marxian dreams of world liberation seriously, and implemented their own version of an affirmative action policy.
This policy greatly benefited the local Chinese and Korean population. Vladivostok was even home to a Korean Pedagogical Institute (College) which, in the 1930s, was the only place in the entire world where a Korean could get a college education in his or her native language. Unlike the Chinese who kept to themselves, the Koreans were eager to integrate into the Soviet society.
However, the honeymoon between Moscow and the Asian minorities came to an abrupt end in the late 1930s, when ethnic minorities with outside connections (read: their ‘home countries’) came to be seen as suspicious.
The city of Vladivostok, once both a naval base and a trade port, lost its latter function: the naval commanders did not want many strange looking and, perhaps, dangerous people hanging around their beloved cruisers and submarines.
Between 1936-38 the Chinese quarters were “cleansed,” with their inhabitants expelled from the city. Some were repatriated to China, while others were allowed to live in Russia, but only in regions located far away from the border.
Then, it was the ethnic Koreans’ turn. In late 1937 the Koreans of Vladivostok and Maritime province were all forcefully removed to Central Asia, where many of their descendants live up to this day. Korean intellectuals and officials were subject to a thorough and bloody purge, and many perished in Stalin’s prisons in the late 1930s.
North Koreans had been present in the province since 1946
Since then and until the 1970s there were almost no Koreans of Chinese, or other Asians, in Vladivostok or its immediate vicinity. Only after 1970 did some Korean families moved back to the lands their parents and grandparents were forced to abandon in 1937, but such families were rare, especially in Vladivostok.
It mattered that from 1952 to 1992 Vladivostok was officially a “closed city.” Foreign ships would not be normally allowed to enter its port, visits by foreign nationals were banned, and even Soviet citizens had to first apply for a formal permit if they wanted to go there. The city became a large naval base.
Due to this peculiar status, even the North Korean consulate had to be based in the smallish township of Nakhodka, a few hours drive from Vladivostok.
It remained there until 2016, when it was moved to Vladivostok.
Nonetheless, North Koreans had been present in the province since 1946 – first as workers in fisheries and then as loggers. They came as a part of the official labor export schemes which have now been implemented by the Soviet/Russian and North Korean authorities for more than seventy years.
The formal opening of the city in 1992 opened it to North Korean workers and companies.
Their offices began to pop up in the mid 1990s, and one of the first, if not the first, North Korean trade company was Rungra, a well known currency-earning branch of the Korean Workers’ Party.
It was soon followed by others, and these days about 15-20 North Korean companies have permanent representation in the city. Most deal in construction, logging, and fishing – major industries in which North Koreans are involved.
However, it was largely the South Koreans who took advantage of Vladivostok’s new legal status. In the early 1990s many South Korean businesses saw the province as a land of opportunity, and rushed to establish some production there.
There were many dozens of Korean-owned enterprises in the city and its vicinity in the late 1990s. Most of them were just small workshops producing garments, shoes and simple consumption goods, but there were larger investors as well.
For example, the Hyundai Group built a large hotel, the first modern five-star hotel in the city (it was eventually sold to the Lotte Group).
The South Korean sponsors also generously supported the Korean department at the local university, so sometimes more than two hundred undergraduates were learning the language and culture of the neighboring country.
In the early 2000s the South Korean began to lose interest to the region, however. The local economy had begun to improve, and wages and salaries in Russia began to grow as well. Russian labor ceased to be cheap in no time.
Rampant corruption, endemic to the region, also annoyed South Koreans, and, last but not least, the poor state of infrastructure was not attractive as well. South Korean businesses have largely (but not completely) withdrawn from the region since the early 2000s.
The local authorities, one has to admit, were also less enthusiastic about foreign investment than their counterparts in China or Vietnam.
Both local authorities and central government in Moscow felt somewhat insecure about the ‘excessive’ presence of foreign citizens and foreign businesses in what they saw as vital but vulnerable region.
Foreigners were often seen not as a source of capital, labor and skills, but rather as a potential fifth column. It might sound paranoid, but, given the relatively recent history of the Russians’ presence in the region, its low population, as well as its vicinity to the Asian giants, such fears are easy to understand.
Meanwhile, in the early 2000s the economic boom and fast growing incomes attracted the North Korean workers, nearly all of whom were employed in construction industry.
From the early 2000s more and more workers arrived in Vladivostok and Maritime Province, so in the mid-2010s their number approached the 10,000 mark.
Some were employed in large projects, but the majority were allowed to search for their own employment. The North Koreans became a source of cheap labor for small businesses and individuals who needed workers to do interior renovation or house repair.
North Korean companies also opened some traditional medicine centers – “oriental medicine” has always been much in vogue among the Russian middle class.
From around 2010, a small number (a few hundred at any given moment) of North Korean female workers appeared as well. The women were employed in food processing and light industry. However, these women were first to leave once the UN sanctions were introduced in late 2017.
Unlike the Chinese, the North Koreans have never been seen by the local authorities as a source of political concern. They were under the strict supervision of their bosses whose words were, in most cases, the law, and they clearly had no intention to stay in the region after they completed their work.
The only complaints one can hear from the officials about the North Korean workers is their systematic tax evasion.
To minimize the amount of taxes they pay, North Korean workers and their supervisors report grossly unrealistic earnings – allegedly, in the mid-2010s the North Korean worker in the region made between 15 and 20 thousand rubles, or between $250 and $330, at the current exchange rate.
Everybody knew that actual earnings started at 40-50 thousand rubles ($650-$700) level for the least skilled and worst paid North Koreans, but such income was under reported systematically.
The North Koreans have never been seen by the local authorities as a source of political concern
Another problem was the involvement of North Koreans in drug smuggling and some trade in protected species, but such activities came to an abrupt end in the early 2000s, most likely as a result of a political decision made in Pyongyang.
Since then the North Korean workers have been seen as faultless, model migrant laborers: law-obedient, docile, almost invisible to the locals.
In recent years small North Korean fishing boats began to appear near the Russian coast, often penetrating the exclusive economic zone – to the great displeasure of the powerful local fishing industry.
This year we witnessed the largest ever intrusion of this kind: in early September hundreds of wooden hulls boats entered the area near the Olga Bay, located some 300 kilometers north-east of Vladivostok and spent a few days there.
The official explanation was that the North Koreans were seeking refuge from a massive storm.
Local fishermen, however, suspected foul play and believe that even if the distress was real, the North Koreans still used the opportunity for illegal fishing on large scale – after all, Olga Bay district, like most of the Maritime region, is very sparsely populated, and the local coast guard unit could not handle a challenge of such magnitude.
On the other hand, North Korean “ghost ships” began to appear on the Russian coast with alarming frequency – often with the remains of their perished crews inside.
In some cases, though, the sailors were lucky to be found to alive but in a dire condition and were rescued by the Russian coast guard or fishermen. About a dozen such “ghost ships” have been discovered in 2018 alone.
Meanwhile, the Vladivostok downtown, in recent years, has become crowded with South Korean tourists – indeed, in some of the streets in the city’s tourist center Korean is probably more frequently heard than Russian.
The “Vladivostok boom” is a new feature of Korean outbound tourism. It is partially driven by the smart advertisement and/or blog publications, but for Koreans Vladivostok has a special value – it has a rather large downtown which is, essentially, a reasonably well-preserved European city of the late 19th and early 20th century vintage.
As a local told me, “they are coming here to see a small piece of the authentic Europe for a fraction of cost they would pay to see Prague or Vienna.”
It helps that air fare is cheap, some $250 return, even less with a group discount, and about 70 flights a week connect Vladivostok with Seoul and Pusan (but only one flight a week departs for Pyongyang).
Korean – and Chinese – signs are seen in all local shops, and some sale clerks even show some basic knowledge of simple ‘market’ Korean.
Still, given its location and the huge potential of its giant Asian neighbors, Vladivostok remains a curiously ‘under-Asianized’ city.
This might change, of course, but it seems that Russian politics will generally keep it that way for the foreseeable future.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News
The city of Vladivostok, the administrative center of the huge (and sparsely populated) Primorsky Krai region, sits in the close vicinity of Russia’s border with Korea and China.As the crow flies, just 130 km away is the railway bridge which connects Russian and North Korea. Given both the peculiarities of the local geography and the sorry (albeit improved) state of the local roads, the
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.