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North Koreans in Russia Work ‘Basically in the Situation of Slaves’ 

click to enlarge The North Korean ferry boat Man Gyong Bong arrives to the port of Vladivostok, Russia, June 15, 2017. North Korea, in desperate need of foreign currency, has sent tens of thousands of its impoverished citizens across its border where they are welcomed as “fast, cheap and reliable” laborers. - JAMES HILL/THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • James Hill/The New York Times
  • The North Korean ferry boat Man Gyong Bong arrives to the port of Vladivostok, Russia, June 15, 2017. North Korea, in desperate need of foreign currency, has sent tens of thousands of its impoverished citizens across its border where they are welcomed as “fast, cheap and reliable” laborers.

By ANDREW HIGGINS
© 2017 New York Times News Service

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Across Western Europe and the United States, immigrants from poorer countries, whether plumbers from Poland or farmhands from Mexico, have become a lightning rod for economic anxieties over cheap labor.

The Russian city of Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean, however, has eagerly embraced a new icon of border-crushing globalization: the North Korean painter.

Unlike migrant workers in much of the West, destitute decorators from North Korea are so welcome that they have helped make Russia at least the equal of China — Pyongyang’s main backer — as the world’s biggest user of labor from the impoverished yet nuclear-armed country.

Human rights groups say this state-controlled traffic amounts to a slave trade, but so desperate are conditions in North Korea that laborers often pay bribes to get sent to Russia, where construction companies and Russians who need work on their homes are delighted to have them.

“They are fast, cheap and very reliable, much better than Russian workers,” Yulia Kravchenko, a 32-year-old Vladivostok housewife said of the painters. “They do nothing but work from morning until late at night.”

The work habits that delight Vladivostok homeowners are also generating sorely needed cash for the world’s most isolated regime, a hereditary dictatorship in Pyongyang now intent on building nuclear bombs and missiles to carry them as far as the United States.

Squeezed by international sanctions and unable to produce goods that anyone outside North Korea wants to buy — other than missile parts, coal and mushrooms — the government has sent tens of thousands of its impoverished citizens to cities and towns across the former Soviet Union to earn money for the state.

Though rigidly controlled by minders from the Workers’ Party of Korea, the ruling party in Pyongyang, they do not, on the whole, live in what the State Department in its recently released annual report on human trafficking called “credible reports of slave-like conditions of North Koreans working in Russia.”

All the same, they still suffer from what human rights groups say is a particularly egregious feature of Pyongyang’s labor export program: Most of their earnings are confiscated by the state.


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