North Korea authorities have set strict conditions for citizens chosen to be overseas workers in an attempt to reduce the number of defectors after a group of 13 restaurant workers in China did not return home last year, sources familiar with the situation said.
Only residents of the capital Pyongyang are now qualified for recruitment, while people from rural areas are no longer being considered, they said.
The authorities are specifically selecting Pyongyang residents that have good family backgrounds and children who live in the country, sources said.
“North Korea’s External Construction Bureau downsized recruitment for dispatch work in Russia starting this May,” a source from the Russian port city of Vladivostok told RFA’s Korean Service. “They have stopped recruiting from rural areas, and they are only open to recruiting Pyongyang residents.”
North Koreans dispatched to Russia usually work as loggers or construction workers, said the source who declined to be named.
“There is a lot of construction work going on in Vladivostok, so North Korean construction workers are the main source of generating foreign currency” for the regime of leader Kim Jong Un, he said.
The isolated country has exported workers to Russia, China, and places farther afield such as the Middle East and Africa for years, but requires them to remit much of their earnings to the North Korean government, which is believed to use the cash to fund its illicit weapons programs.
Some workers have used the opportunity to try to defect to the North’s enemy South Korea.
In April 2016, a North Korean restaurant in the eastern Chinese port city of Ningbo made international headlines when 13 staff members escaped to South Korea to seek asylum—a mass defection that Pyongyang condemned as a “hideous” abduction by Seoul’s agents.
“The strict conditions for selecting overseas workers, which limit open recruitment to Pyongyang residents only, have caused the number of North Korean workers in our company to drop to 500 from 2,000,” the source in Vladivostok said.
A Russian labor staffing agency usually dispatches the workers to the company where they receive a monthly salary of U.S. $250-$300, he said.
“Even if the workers find a job with higher pay, they are supposed to return most of their earnings to the [ruling] Workers’ Party of North Korea,” he said, adding that his company’s internal policy specifies that it must transfer 70 percent of North Korean workers’ salaries to the government, while the employees keep the rest.
But the workers have nothing left to spend after they use their earnings to cover their room and board, the source said.
“Even if they have some money left over, it is not enough to send to their families in North Korea or even to buy some drinks or cigarettes,” he said.
Forced to provide slave labor
A source from Khabarovsk, a city on the Amur River in southeastern Russia, told RFA that authorities are keeping a close eye on citizens it sends abroad to work.
“They recently established a reporting system for each work group and team,” said the source who requested anonymity. “Even the workers’ dining hours and dining halls are being closely watched.”
Three North Korean workers attempted to escape from a local construction site in early June, but they were soon captured and sent back to North Korea, he said. Once they were back home, they said they had tried to defect because they had not been able to send any money to their families for more than three years since they had been dispatched overseas, the source said.
A North Korean defector who escaped from a worksite in Russia and now lives in South Korea suggested that authorities will likely have problems trying to recruit people to work abroad given the difficulties of working in Russia.
“North Korean workers in Russia are forced to provide slave labor in [Russia’s] worsening work environment,” he said. “If there are strict conditions for selecting overseas workers, they should be facing difficulties with recruiting workers.”
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.