Saturday, December 4, 2010

North Koreans in Russia

I currently live in Daegu, South Korea. As Daegu is the fourth largest city in a very populated and modern country, I don’t have much opportunity for desolation traveling these days. As such, I was looking forward to this weekend, when I had planned to take a trip to the highly fortified and oxymoronically named demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea.

If you’ve been anywhere remotely near any news source over the past week, I bet you can guess that my planned trip to the DMZ got cancelled. See, the DMZ isn’t the sort of international border you can just walk up to or across; the DMZ can only be visited at approved locations and under escort by approved travel agencies. And the South Korean government can lock down the DMZ, cutting off all tourist visits at any time it deems appropriate… and as you might assume, this is one of those time.

(Now, in case you’ve been under a rock, or have had your head stuffed up a turkey for the past week or so, here’s the skinny: On November 23, 2010 North Korea began shelling a civilian village on the South Korean border island of Yeonpyeong-do, killing two South Korean marines and two South Korean civilians. This has resulted in much sabre-rattling from North and South alike, the dispatch of a US aircraft carrier and strike group to the region, and much alarmist babbling from the talking heads. You can read my take on the situation

As a resident of South Korea, I have been following the news closely since November 23rd, and as a Russophile I was surprised to discover
this article on the rather large expat population of North Koreans in the Russian far east, and the fact that they are currently being recalled to their homeland:

Russia's migration service said that there were over 20,000 North Koreans in Russia at the beginning of 2010, of which the vast majority worked in construction. The workers are usually chaperoned by agents from Kim Jong-il's security services and have little contact with the world around them. Defectors have suggested that the labourers work 13-hour days and that most of their pay is sent back to the government in Pyongyang. Hundreds of workers have fled the harsh conditions and live in hiding in Russia, constantly in fear of being deported back to North Korea.

To be honest, I’d had no idea there were North Koreans living (legally) anywhere outside of North Korea, other than small cadres of diplomats in the few countries with “normalized” diplomatic relations with the North. I had certainly never guessed that the North Korean expat population would be anywhere near this size.

I also noticed this quote: "North Korea's government sends thousands of its citizens to Russia to earn money, most of which is funnelled through government accounts," says Simon Ostrovsky, a journalist who discovered secret North Korean logging camps in the northern Siberian taiga.

Hmmm. Oddly enough, I know this Simon Ostrovsky fellow from my time in Russia way back in 1999-2000 (god, I’m getting old). I messaged him to see if he had any photographs or videos online anywhere from his experience investigating North Korean logging camps, and voilà!

Unfortunately, I can’t embed his video in this post, but it is excellent and definitely worth watching – so
CLICK HERE and watch it now – Desolation Investigative Journalism at its best!

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