The U.S. State Department’s latest Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report describes labor camps in Russia filled with North Korean workers toiling in “slave-like conditions,” immediately conjuring up images of the gulag and high Stalinism. The State Department report notes that tens of thousands North Koreans working abroad are forced to work up to 20 hours a day for meager compensation, leaving the reader with a conclusion: Russia must stop exploiting North Korean labor immediately.

But a more nuanced reading of North Korean economic migration to Russia tells a different story of the labor camps. Crucially, the mechanics of migration from North Korea indicate a degree of volition that the State Department report ignores: prospective workers pay hefty bribes to local government officials for the opportunity to work outside the country.

This hardly sounds like slavery; if North Koreans are willing to pay large sums of money to be sent to these labor camps, their work there can’t rightly be considered slave labor, no matter the conditions. And in fact, most North Koreans see work abroad as a chance to dramatically improve their financial and social standing. For many, it is their only avenue of upward social mobility.

North Korean economic migration to Russia dates back to before the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The first groups of North Korean laborers started working in fishing and forest industries in the Russian Far East as early as 1946, when the northern part of the Korean peninsula was under Soviet military control. 

Unlike most instances of Soviet-North Korean cooperation, this labor project was economically viable from the beginning: the Soviet Union (and subsequently Russia) benefited from a new cheap and disciplined workforce, while North Korea and its citizens benefited from being able to earn foreign currency and send it home. 

From the 1970s to the 1990s, between 15,000 and 20,000 North Korean workers were employed in the Soviet Union at any given time, working for the most part in logging camps in Eastern Siberia and the Far East. 

Because North Koreans were hesitant about traveling to Siberia in winter, they were initially sent there by force. But the situation drastically changed once North Koreans discovered that their neighbors were coming home rich. Older North Koreans still remember their surprise at seeing young people on motorcycles in their towns, the owners having brought Soviet models back to the Korean Peninsula.

It’s true that workers received very low salaries. But they also received free room and board, meaning they could bring most of their earnings home. After a two-year stint (the typical length of a work contract in the USSR at that time), the average North Korean could save a few thousand Soviet rubles.

North Koreans had to pay for the right to work abroad even then: a supervisor who recommended a worker for a job in the USSR generally received a television set as a bribe. The payments are made in dollars or yuan now, and total around $500 to $700 for the right to work in Russia. The right to work in other countries costs significantly less: $200 for work in China and $400 to $500 for work in the Middle East.

Certainly, migrant workers’ lives in the USSR were far from idyllic. From the very beginning, North Korean logging camps resembled a state within a state in which DPRK political officers closely monitored workers’ behavior. Those violating the rules of conduct were severely punished. If possible, violators were deported to North Korea. If deportation was not an option, the North Korean special services had no qualms about executing workers—Soviet authorities were simply told that a person died in an accident or disappeared.

Perestroika had surprisingly little effect on the situation. Cheap labor was still in demand, and though the number of North Korean workers in Russia shrank during the 1990s, it started growing again after 2000. At present, approximately 30,000 North Koreans are employed in Russia.

The North Korean government tries to keep a close eye on its citizens abroad, which is why economic migrants are usually settled in close proximity to each other—either in dormitories or in the notorious labor camps in rural areas. But since the late 1990s, a significant number of North Korean workers have been able to move freely within Russia in search of employment. 

These workers are expected to hand over a fixed amount of their earnings to the government—a “planned contribution” that depends on a number of factors, including a worker’s skill and job location. On average, the North Koreans working in Russia have to surrender between $500 and $900 to the government per month.

Some of this money lines the pockets of North Korean managers and special service agents, but most of it ultimately ends up in the state coffers. This form of state revenue, which totals a few hundred million dollars per year, provides a strong incentive for the DPRK to send its workers abroad.

After subtracting required payments to their government and day-to-day expenses, the average worker gets to keep $150 to $300 per month, which is significantly more than the $50 to $70 per month that the average North Korean man makes back home. After two or three years in Russia, the North Korean migrant worker can return to his family with $4,000 to $6,000 in cash.

In most cases, returning workers use this money to buy a storefront, which costs a minimum of $5,000 in Pyongyang but much less in the provinces. Owning even a modest storefront provides the returning worker’s family a substantially above-average income. Because the average North Korean would not otherwise have the means to start a small business, working abroad is perhaps the only way for a citizen of the DPRK to climb the social ladder and provide his family financial stability.

North Korean workers see Russia as a country with very good pay and tolerable living conditions. They also have more freedom in Russia compared to other countries: in China, for instance, they’re essentially prohibited from leaving their work sites. 

Upon returning home, migrant laborers have to take an intensive ideological retraining course to neutralize the harmful foreign influences they were supposedly subjected to abroad. Then they are required to work at their previous place of employment for six months, after which they are again eligible to work overseas—something the overwhelming majority of the migrants hope to do.

Of course, North Korean workers continue to toil under extremely difficult conditions in Russia. But they would have an even harder time back home and earn significantly less. And so they work in Russia voluntarily.

The reasoning behind the American position is clear: the United States wants to put economic pressure on North Korea to make it abandon its nuclear program. Of course, this isn’t going to happen: the DPRK will never give up its nuclear weapons—even if maintaining its nuclear program leads to famine and death. But Washington is still under the illusion that closing all avenues of financing for the DPRK, including economic migration, will change the regime’s behavior.

From this perspective, efforts to portray economic pressure on North Korea as caring about the human rights of its citizens are disingenuous. Putting an end to economic migration will not send North Korean workers back to 8-hour workdays in safe, air-conditioned workshops. They will return to considerably worse working conditions than they experienced in Russia, and they’ll be earning significantly less. 

  • Andrei Lankov