There may be no story on earth where the answer to a question is so dependent on who you ask as North Korea. Take the case of this NK News story from February, by an anonymous correspondent who went to Vladivostok, wandered into a local North Korean cafe, and found some North Korean construction workers who were — surprisingly enough! — willing to speak “freely” to a foreign journalist. Ready for your first clue?
He grins through a mouthful of gold teeth which, combined with his black shiny jacket, leather man-pouch and black wooly hat, gives him the air of someone it would be unwise to argue with.
But as so often with DPRK-related matters, a menacing external impression conceals a much more nuanced and complex picture. Mr. Cho is very friendly and talkative.
“Yes, that’s right it’s construction we do at Snegovaya,” he says as we discuss the men’s place of work. [NK News]
Here comes your next clue.
“We live in a dormitory on the building site. I’m an engineer and supervisor and Mr. Pak is one of my workers.”
The seniority is evident: Mr. Cho, who is in his 50s, is better dressed and appears more self-assured than the younger and still rather green-looking Mr. Pak. This is not surprising given how long the older man has been in the country.
The correspondent’s harsh questioning elicits that the men live in a comfortable dormitory, have the run of the city, are fed and treated well, and spend their weekends relaxing in cafes and shopping for cozy boots. The resulting story, however, does not mention the obvious possibility that the men are minders for the North Korean security forces.
North Korean workers, whose jobs are much sough-after back in the DPRK, can often be seen in small groups walking around Vladivostok, much freer than imprisoned “slaves” they have sometimes been labeled.
Although the observation of a Russian journalist that the North Korean workers “make unreasonable demands for extra food, cigarettes and vodka” suggests that the state does not quite provide for all of the workers’ needs, it isn’t exactly the Gulag Archipelago, either. Still, a review of the record reveals some niggling contradictions, such as the North Korean worker in Vladivostok who had set himself on fire just a month before. Or the very need for a new treaty between the two countries, to ensure the prompt repatriation of North Koreans who try to flee from their splendor.
But before you conclude that Russia is the workers’ paradise for North Koreans — well, for most of them, anyway — read what a Daily NK correspondent found in the logging camps near Khabarovsk more recently.
According to testimony given to Daily NK at the end of the month by a North Korean laborer in Russia, escapees who are apprehended face extremely ruthless punishment in order to deter future attempts by others. In one such example, a laborer had his Achilles tendon severed by the authorities. In another case, the laborers were forced to lie down and had their legs broken with a construction excavator. Upon their return to North Korea, these handicapped laborers and their families are sent to political prison camps.
Another laborer sent to the coastal province of Khabarovsk, Russia, at the beginning of the year testified to Daily NK that, “Previously, a worker fled from the worksite and hid out in a nearby church, where he was later discovered and caught. The SSD agents used a huge excavator to crush him. He was denied proper medical attention thereafter and became disabled. It’s impossible for these SSD agents to forgive an escape attempt and so they made an example out of him.”
He continued, “The last time we saw our colleague in question, he was skin and bones, injured, and had nothing but a simple bandage on his leg. He was forcibly repatriated in that condition. This is not an unusual or rare occurrence. Some laborers who try to escape have their Achilles tendon cut, and others are beaten with pieces of lumber. These kinds of escape attempts happen from time to time, but even if the laborers manage to flee, it is very difficult for them to survive. They have no choice but to wander about.” [Daily NK]
The Daily NK isn’t the only source to find horrific conditions in the Siberian camps.
Lee Yong-ho, a defector who was a truck driver at a Russian logging camp, said he often worked 12 to 14 hours per day but never thought about his working conditions.
“Slaves? Well, I didn’t actually think about something like that. I only thought how much I could earn each month,” said Lee, now a manual laborer in South Korea.
Kim, who worked at a different Siberian logging camp with about 900 other North Koreans, said dozens of workers died during his stay, many after being hit by falling trees. He said dead workers were stored for months in some vacant houses, with their entire bodies except their heads wrapped by blankets.
“It was so cold there that they hadn’t decomposed. Their faces looked just the same as before,” he said. “I once touched some of their faces and it was like touching ice.”
Lee Yong-ho also saw frozen bodies stored. It was cheaper to them home in groups. [AP]
So, how can we reconcile these jarringly different accounts? For one thing, NK News‘s story relied heavily on the account of at least one “supervisor” who fed the correspondent a narrative and found his mark willing to swallow it without much further investigation. NK News‘s story doesn’t specify how widely its author ranged to question that narrative, or what efforts he made (like, say, those of Vice’s correspondent in Poland) to speak to workers surreptitiously. There’s no indication that he pulled pay or employment records, or did any of the commendable leg-work Vice’s reporter did that exposed the lies of the North Koreans’ Polish employers. Indeed, several years ago, Vice’s Shane Smith visited logging camps in Siberia and, though he found none of the horrors the Daily NK did, also found some extraordinary efforts at secrecy and control designed to keep prying eyes away. In other words, the greater the depth of the reporting, the more credible it is. The same obviously applies to the Daily NK, which has just begun publishing a series of articles on overseas workers.
Second, and whatever our concerns about the depth of the reporting, conditions for construction workers in Vladivostok might just be very different than conditions for loggers in Khabarovsk. After all, abuses in the middle of a city would be less likely to escape notice and exposure than abuses out in the taiga. This brings us to a second problem with NK News‘s report: the implication that its findings are representative of conditions for North Korean workers in Russia overall. I don’t want to overstate this; after all, the report does distingish the accessibility of its North Korean subjects in Vladivostok from those in China. But in the end, it pursues a narrative popular among “engagers” and other anti-anti-North Korean types — that overseas work is better than work inside North Korea, and ergo, not slavery. The latter doesn’t quite follow from the former, of course, but as they did in the American South, conditions for North Korean slaves undoubtedly vary. It’s never a safe thing to build a narrative on a single interview. In the end, the report’s greatest flaw may be its failure to take note of the many other reports finding conditions for North Koreans in Russia to be subhuman.
The lesson here? Several come to mind. First — as the AP’s humiliation in Pyongyang has repeatedly reinforced — never accept a North Korean minder’s narrative at face value. Second, question everything you’re told by hunting for documentary evidence to confirm or refute it. Third, make an effort to show us the bigger picture. And finally, semantics matter. As Lee Yong-ho says, North Koreans are so conditioned by their experiences at home that they probably don’t think of themselves as slaves. Asking a North Korean — especially a North Korean minder, whose living conditions may be just fine, and also grossly atypical — isn’t very useful for our conclusions about the implications of these arrangements under international law. If you’re going to argue that someone is or isn’t a “slave,” at least take the trouble the Leiden Asia Center did and try to define the term meaningfully. In the end, what makes a slave a slave is whether he has the choice to sell his labor freely.