North Korean Migrants Remaining in Russia Experience Discrimination, Human Rights Abuses

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North Korean workers at a construction site in Vladivostok, Russia, in an undated photo.
North Korean workers at a construction site in Vladivostok, Russia, in an undated photo.
Yonhap News

As Russian authorities ramp up efforts to comply with U.N. sanctions on North Korea, North Korean migrants in Vladivostok are experiencing verbal abuse among the migrant worker community, discrimination from Russians, and human rights violations perpetrated by police, local residents told RFA’s Korean Service.

The sanctions, aimed at depriving Pyongyang of resources and cash that could be funneled into its nuclear and missile programs, stipulate that all North Korean overseas workers must return home by the end of the year and that no new work visas for North Koreans will be issued.

RFA reported on September 5 that hundreds of North Korean workers were gathered at the Vladivostok airport awaiting flights to Pyongyang. Another RFA report published last week detailed how upon the workers’ return,  North Korean authorities were trying to make them talk about each other’s illegal activities while abroad.

Russian Ambassador to North Korea Aleksandr Matsegora said in an interview with Russian media on September 5 that all North Korean workers in Russia are to be repatriated.

Now those who remain are saying that the authorities, and even other groups of migrant workers, are treating them as if they are in a lower caste.

“North Korean workers in Russia are treated as subhuman,” a Russian citizen of Korean descent told RFA’s Korean Service on Sunday.

“The workers have been unable to complain because they are in Russia illegally on three-month tourist visas,” the source said.

Even though North Korean migrants are employed, mostly in construction in Vladivostok and the surrounding areas, their shabby appearances are causing locals to treat them as if they are vagrants and vagabonds, the source explained.

“Locals are treating the North Korean workers as beggars rather than sympathizing with them because they have emaciated faces and they are very skinny and wear tattered work clothes,” said the source.

Visa issues change living arrangements

The source said that when North Koreans were on proper working visas, they were somewhat shielded from discriminatory behavior from locals because they were all living together near worksites.

“Previously, North Korean workers, who were dispatched with a proper five-year working visa, stayed in temporary living facilities built on the construction sites, but now it is difficult to organize such group-living arrangements as they enter the country on short-term visas,” the source said.

Those temporary shelters had the effect of keeping the workers isolated from society, thereby eliminating exposure to discriminatory behavior from locals.

“Now groups of four to five people stay in cheap accommodation that costs about 5,000 rubles ($78) a month, and they commute to the construction site,” added the source.

“North Korean workers are treated as beggars by Russians because their shabby appearance gives away that they are from North Korea, but when (Russians) meet South Koreans they are polite and treat them with respect,” said the source.

“Meanwhile the North Koreans get verbal insults,” the source added.

The discriminatory behavior isn’t limited only to Russians. Migrants from other countries, who work alongside the North Koreans are also treating them poorly, according to the source.

“Perhaps influenced by the Russians, Uzbek and Kazakh workers at the same construction sites are acting like North Koreans are beggars. If there is news that North Korea has launched missiles or is testing new weapons, they mock the North Koreans, saying things like ‘Your trashy country fired missiles again,’” the source said.

Another source, also a Russian citizen of Korean descent from Vladivostok, elaborated on the lengths some of the North Korean workers will go to in order to avoid maltreatment.

“Some North Korean workers pretend to be South Koreans. But people can easily figure out they are from the North because of their [shabby] clothes, skinny bodies, and tanned [skin],” the second source said.

Police crackdown

The second source witnessed a police crackdown at a construction site, and described the episode to RFA.

“Last week, dozens of armed police from the Russian Immigration Bureau surrounded a construction site and began looking for illegal aliens. I saw a police officer who is known to be harsh on North Koreans, equipped with a taser in one hand, verbally abuse a North Korean because the worker did not move quickly when ordered,” the second source said.

“One North Korean complained about the armed police kicking them while they were being told to assemble. He passed out after being tased. The police continued to insult the rest, calling them sons of bitches,” said the second source.

The Russians who were working alongside the North Koreans showed them no sympathy, even mocking them, according to the second source.

“[They] said things like, ‘You are in Russia working for more than 16 hours a day, and your country takes your wages so they can launch missiles,’” said the second source.

The Korean-Russian said it hurt to see his North Korean brethren suffer.

“Although we are from different countries, we are of the same race, so I felt sorry for [them],” he said.

Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.





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