Since the proclamation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, Russia has been vital to the exchange of labour from North Korea to Central Asia. 70 years later North Korean citizens still provide labour and infrastructural work on constructions sites all over Russia. But with wages far below subsistence level and workers under strict seclusion and surveillance, the situation has attracted the attention of and condemnation from the UN. Still, the steady influx of North Korean workers has not halted or changed, which raises the question why this special relationship has emerged and lasted for so long.
The close relationship between Russia and North Korea stems from the days of Josef Stalin and Kim Il Sung in the 1950s. As the Cold War escalated, tensions rose between the United States and the Soviet Union. Just as the communist party in China provided opportunities, Stalin also saw the potential offered by a Red Korea as a step towards creating a communist regime stretching from Berlin to Seoul. Providing Kim with arms, manpower and intelligence, the Soviet Union urged North Korea to confront the US-occupied south, triggering the Korean War in June 1950.
With the war coming to an end three years later, and the division of Korea remaining at the 38th parallel, the relationship between the Soviet Union and North Korea deepened, with exchanges of trade and labour increasing. Importing technical machinery and the sharing of knowledge allowed North Korea to heavily industrialise and raise GDP to levels competing with that of the liberal-capitalist South Korea.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea saw themselves losing a powerful ally, trade-partner and patron. As a result, food and energy imports which were essential for North Korean welfare practically vanished overnight. Widespread famine broke out throughout the country, causing the death of thousands of North Koreans. The consequences of the abrupt cut in economic aid shed great light on the incapability of the DPRK to uphold living standards without the support of international aid, the bulk of which was provided by the Soviet Union.
Fast forward to 2018, one would believe that North Korea’s economic reliance on Russia has faded. While it is true that the export of military equipment has decreased, Russia now provide the DPRK with a steady flow of capital through permitting work visas for North Korean guest labourers. Among the 100,000 North Korean labourers being sent abroad, the majority end up in Russia doing construction work on building and bridges. The Russian state has also utilised this labour force in more special projects, including building the Zenith Arena for the World Cup in 2018, raising ethical questions on the international agenda.
Bringing the attention of the world to this issue, the UN has expressed its discontent at the working conditions of the guest labourers, describing them as “slave-like”. Working long hours under strict surveillance and seclusion, the labourers risk the safety of themselves and their families if they interact with outsiders and media – making it hard to assess the importance and purpose of their work abroad to the North Korean state. However, according to US diplomats up to 90% of the wages being paid to North Korean labourers in Russia are directly sent back to Pyongyang, funding various state projects. The systematic seizure of capital from workers abroad brings a hefty 2.3 billion US dollars in yearly income to the North Korean state and the Kim dynasty.
The money generated from Russia is not merely an issue of accumulated wealth. Digging deeper, a disturbing connection has been discovered between the income from foreign labourers and the development of North Korea’s nuclear programme. From the initial testing in 2006, the production and potential use of weapons of mass destruction has been a top priority to the state’s leaders, justifying the programme as a necessary step to prevent Western world dominance. Still, 70 years later, North Koreans see no change in the geopolitical circumstances that once were the founding elements of the state itself.
After a period of intensified testing of ballistic missiles the UN Security Council adopted a resolution in December 2017, imposing further sanctions to prohibit the potential escalation of tensions at the Korean peninsula and to promote further diplomatic conversation. Among the subjects of the resolution was a requirement that those countries using North Korean labourers send these individuals home within a 24-month period. The real potency of the resolution has however been questioned as the Russian state seems to be making no moves to follow it – Russia is still accepting applications for work visas from the DPRK. Backed by China (the second biggest provider of work for North Korean citizens), the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has called for an ease of the sanctions saying it is a “collective punishment”.
What the future holds for North Korean guest labourers is, to say the least, unclear. Understanding the complex history of Russian – North Korean relations unlocks some of the truth and aims in what is an unexpected friendship between capitalism and communism. The relationship enables Russia to engage cheap workforce for construction projects, and North Korea has been able to reunite with a powerful friend and patron which provides the dictatorship with an international political lever to use and abuse. But as the bi-polar superpowers of the world does everything within their power to protect their interests in the situation, the question must be raised – who protects the rights and interests of the North Korean labourers? Are they getting attention for the right reasons, or are they just as their work – simply another brick in the wall?