It is always worth checking the English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique for their coverage of East Asia - they usually have one or two interesting things. This month they really came up trumps with a fascinating insight into the world of [North] Koreans - ‘Koretsky’ - working in the Russian Far East, either as lumberjacks in the vast Siberian Taiga or construction workers in newly booming Vladivostok. Needless to say, it’s not fun work:
The lumberjacks’ stories were as heavy as taiga timber. Not getting out of the way fast enough when trees are coming down is a hazard of the job. Often there are accidents which lead to broken limbs, sometimes needing amputation. There are doctors at the camps, but medicines are often unavailable or out of date. A lumberjack said: “If you can pay, you get better treatment. I’ve been injured three times. Once, numbed by the cold, I was working too slowly and a trunk fell down on my chest. I was lucky not to die. Another time I hurt my leg and couldn’t work for a month, so I didn’t get paid.”
And they’re not exactly well-paid when they do get paid:
There are six companies [in vladivostok], employing around 3,000. The local press describes the Koretsky (Koreans) as “quick, cheap and hardworking”. “They agree not to be paid until the work is finished,” a businessman explained. Individuals employ them to put up a wall or repaint a flat. Everyone in Vladivostok knows that the Koreans hardly live well; they often sleep on the sites and they work very hard. But everyone also says: “At the end of the day, they’re making money.”
That is not always true, such is the perversity of Kim Jong-il’s regime. The employment companies do not offer paid work. Their job is to take the passports when the labourers arrive, keep an eye on them in their residences and collect a tax. It is up to the workers to find their own employers, through contacts or classified ads. Whether they find work or not, they have to pay €250 a month to the companies, a lot of money in a region where salaries are much lower than in Moscow (a university lecturer in Vladivostok earns €125 a month).
North Korea has apparently been in the business of exporting its labour power as a way of earning foreign currency for a long time. Obviously there is nothing at all unusual about this and many a ‘developing’ country survives partly on remittances from migrant workers or uses the capital earned in this way to help build up domestic industry (South Korea might be a fairly good example of the latter, although I don’t know the figures). Of course the North has now hit upon what is probably a much more secure and satisfactory way of exporting the labour power of its citizens by doing it within its own borders, at the maquiladoras of the Kaesŏng Industrial Region, and perhaps in new ‘Special Administrative Regions’ such as Sinŭiju, in which the sovereignty of the North Korean state will effectively be privatised and handed over to some sort of modern day Chinese or South Korean tax farmers.