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Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin Discuss North Korean Workers in Russia

By Robert R. King

On April 25, for the first time in the nine years that he has been Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un met face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok.  The principal focus of the meeting was the failed Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader.  Both Russian and North Korean media provided extensive coverage of the meeting, and in a press event after the meeting, Putin gave his own readout of the just-concluded meeting with Kim Jong-un.

That Putin media event did not have the rugby-scrum atmosphere of a Trump “press availability” as the American President walks from the White House to Marine One, with helicopter blades noisily whirring in the background and journalists shouting questions above the din.  The Russian President responded to formal polite questions from respectful journalists with carefully weighed answers.  The focus of the questions to Putin involved North Korean-United States issues as well as North Korea-Russian security issues.

One of the more interesting questions was from a Russian journalist who raised with Putin the issue of North Korean laborers in Russia.  In his response,the Russian President acknowledged that it was one of the topics he discussed with Kim Jong-un.  This is the text of the exchange with Putin.

Question: “Has the topic of North Koreans who work in Russia been raised during the talks? They are supposed to leave our country, but they do not want to. Thank you.”

Putin responded:  “Yes, we talked about this. There are several different options here. There are humanitarian issues, and there are issues related to the exercising of these people’s rights. There are smooth, non-confrontational solutions. I must say that the Koreans work well for us, never giving the local authorities any trouble. They are very hardworking people, law-abiding and disciplined. We discussed it.”

North Korean Workers and UN Sanctions

North Korean laborers in Russia (also in China and elsewhere) are a serious issue related to the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions on North Korea because of its nuclear and missile programs.  The United States government said North Korea was earning more than $500 million annually from an estimated 100,000 North Koreans working abroad in a number of countries, and that 50,000 North Koreans were working in China and 30,000 in Russia.  The UN Security Council sanctions (UNSC Resolution 2397, Paragraph 8) include a ban on all North Korean labor exports with deadlines for eliminating all North Korean foreign labor by the end of 2019.

In March 2019, the government of Russia informed the UN Security Council that it had sent back nearly two-thirds of the North Korean workers in Russia.  North Koreans with valid Russian work permits dropped from 30,023 to 11,490 according to Russian officials.  At the same time, China informed the Council that more than half of the North Korean workers in China had returned, though it did not give a number of total workers or the number who returned to the North.  (There have been some press reports, however, that new groups ofNorth Korean workers are going to China.)

These Russian and Chinese statements were submitted to the United Nations, but they were not formally made public. However, Reuters and other news media were shown the one-page reports from each country giving this information.The Moscow Times also published a similar report with the Russian figures.Consistent with UN sanctions requirements, a number of other countries who had North Korean workers in the past have ended the practice.  Mongolia, for example, sent the last 1,200 North Korean workers in Mongolia back to North Korea in December 2017.

In July 2018, the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security issued a notice regarding the serious risk for businesses with supply chain links to North Korea and warned against products from countries using North Korean labor.  The industries affected included apparel, construction, footwear, hospitality, IT services, logging, medical, pharmaceuticals, restaurant, seafood processing, textiles, and shipbuilding.  The United States listed 46 countries where North Korean labor was employed, although the notice said that China and Russia had more North Korean workers than all other countries combined.

Benefits for Moscow

For Moscow, there are distinct economic benefits to using North Korean workers.  First, North Korean workers are close to a large, resource rich area of Russia which is sparsely populated.  The Far Eastern Federal District, one of the eight Federal Districts of Russia, comprises 40 percent of the entire territory of country, and its 2.7 million square mile area, which is more than two-thirds the size of the entire United States (including Alaska).  TheFar Eastern Federal District extends from Lake Baikal in the center of Russia to the Pacific Ocean only a few miles from Alaska across the Bearing Strait.

This huge territory, however, has a population of only 8.4 million people.  Tiny North Korea alone has a population of 25 million people living in a territory equal to less than 2% of the land mass of Russia’s Far Eastern Federal District.  Russia needs labor to develop and exploit the extensive timber and other natural resources of this vast area.

Another important benefit to Russia of using North Korean workers is that they are relatively cheap.  The Russian Ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, told reporters that Chinese laborers would be unwilling to take construction jobs in Russia’s Far East which are filled by North Koreans because the pay is too low to be attractive to the Chinese.  Furthermore, the Russian government would prefer to have non-Chinese workers in its Far East.  In the past, China, with its population of 1.4 billion people, has made claims against sparsely populated Russian controlled territory in East Asia.

Russia and other countries who host North Korean workers, have found these workers to be a disciplined work force, controlled and managed by their minders from home.  One Russian in Vladivostok enthusiastically expressed it this way, “They do nothing but work from morning until late at night.”  Russians are happy to employ North Koreans for household repair and painting or building a sports stadium.  Putin, as noted in his recent press conference said “the Koreans work well for us, never giving the local authorities any trouble.  They are very hardworking people, law-abiding and disciplined.”

Benefits for Pyongyang

There is a financial benefit to North Korea from the employment of its workers abroad.  Koreans working abroad are under strict control with party and government supervisors who monitor them.  The individual workers are not paid directly, but through the North Korean managers.  Under this system, a major portion of the wages goes to Pyongyang and a significant portion is also taken by the North Korean work unit managers and the supervisors in Pyongyang.  Earnings remaining for North Korean workers are reduced for payments to the Workers’ Party, and other donations are made to a loyalty fund.

United States officials have estimated that the North Korean take from all of these foreign workers around the world is as much as $500 million.  While that estimate may be excessive, there is little question that the cash benefit to the government of foreign workers is important—probably increasingly important as North Korean trade has declined and import costs have risen as a result of UN sanctions.

North Korean workers abroad are provided food and lodging as part of the effort to control the workers.  What is left as direct pay to the workers is only a small part of what the host country pays for their services, but workers can take home most of the modest earnings they are paid.  Even with this small take-home pay, most North Koreans who work abroad for the average two-year stint are able to accumulate a significant nest egg by North Korean standards.

Living and working conditions for North Koreans abroad are not good—particularly by international standards.  Working abroad does involve human rights abuse, and accounts of living conditions of North Koreans working abroad indicate conditions are very difficult.  Some attention was given to difficult working conditions for North Koreans in Russia in connection with their work on the Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg, which was used for 2018 World Cup games hosted by Russia.  But for North Korean workers accustomed to draconian working and living conditions at home, working abroad actually is attractive.

When North Koreans work abroad, they are not permitted to bring family members with them.  Wives and children remain in North Korea, held hostage to be certain the workers do not “defect.”  It also makes it easier to control workers abroad by threatening harm to family members.  Life is difficult for workers who go abroad, but also for their family members who remain behind.

Despite the difficult and abusive conditions for North Koreans working in Russia, reports indicate that would-be foreign laborers pay hefty bribes for the privilege of working there.  Andrei Lankov, Russian-born Korea specialist and professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, has discussed this phenomenon of North Koreans eager to work abroad.  Lankov is correct—when the alternative to work abroad is working under draconian conditions inside North Korea for lower wages, workers are eager to go abroad.

Working conditions, long hours, and low pay for North Koreans abroad are difficult, particularly in comparison to conditions and pay for workers of countries where they are sent.  In comparison with labor standards, conditions, and wages elsewhere, North Korean workers suffer rights abuse.  At the same time, compared to what they would earn and the conditions they would face if they remain in North Korea, there are benefits that make working abroad a sought-after alternative for many North Koreans.

Will Russia Observe its Commitment on North Korea Sanctions?

Despite the advantage for Russia of using North Korean labor and the desire of North Korea to continue the practice, the UN Security Council sanctions are quite explicit in requiring an end to use of North Korean foreign labor.  Russia and China—as well as the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and other UN member states—have an obligation to observe UN Security Council sanctions.  Russia and China have publicly stated to the United Nations that they are reducing the numbers of North Korean workers, and they intend to end the practice by December 2019.

Vladimir Putin’s response to the Russian journalist’s query in Vladivostok, however, indicated that North Korean laborers in Russia is an issue that received significant attention in his meeting with Kim Jong-un.  The Russians have been moving to reduce the number of North Korean workers, but Putin’s comments that “there are several options here” and “there are humanitarian issues. . . and these people’s rights,” suggests a possible softening of the Russian position on sanctions against employment of North Korean workers.

The fact that Kim Jong-un raised the foreign worker issue in Vladivostok makes it clear that the UN sanctions involving foreign workers are having an impact in Pyongyang.  The real question is whether Kim Jong-un’s appeal to Putin will lead Russia to backtrack from its United Nations sanctions commitment.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Photo from the website of the President of the Russian Federation.

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