For the second time this year, a group of North Korean overseas workers has defected to South Korea — this time, from Russia. KBS, citing anonymous South Korean government sources, first reported that “nearly ten” North Korean construction workers in St. Petersburg fled their dormitory in late August, contacted the local South Korean consulate, and expressed their intention to defect. The workers are now in the care of a human rights NGO pending their departure for the Land of Honey Butter Chips, where I can only hope they’ll punch the first person they hear saying “Hell Chosun” in the face. According to the Daily NK, their team leader may “have played a central role in the defection.”
“From what I have learned, the team leader took out 6-10 workers in his group to the worksite and then made a call to the South Korean Consulate right away,” the source said. “The defection happened in an instant under his leadership.” [Daily NK]
KBS says that “[t]he construction workers were reportedly unhappy with the poor working conditions and intense pressure to send back their earnings to provide the North with much-needed foreign currency.” They also felt “anxiety about their own safety,” which is understandable in light of a recent report that 40 North Korean workers around the world — including 13 in Russia — have died of disease, suicide, or accidents this year so far. Their sanitary conditions don’t sound so pleasant, either.
“Our comrades built a toilet in a small house and installed a dining room right there. So, someone is defecating at one side of the dining room.” [KBS]
Ah, yes, the bucolic lifestyle of North Korea’s “happy slaves” in Russia — like the one in Vladivostok who was so happy he set fire to himself and jumped off a building, or the ones whose minders cut their Achilles tendons to keep them from running away again. Or these contented members of the proletariat, seen here during some spontaneous comradely athletic solidarity exercises with their Russian hosts.
[Workers of all countries, unite. You have nothing to lose but your teeth.]
Wage theft, however, appears the most-cited reason for the workers’ discontent. Pyongyang, which increasingly relies on overseas workers to sustain it financially, is putting “relentless pressure” on them to “cough up more hard currency.” That pressure spiked again after the Hamgyeong floods.
Another source in China said since the severe flooding of the Duman River last month, the regime has been forcing workers overseas to donate US$100 to 150 each to a flood relief fund. “This kind of extortion is causing more North Korean workers overseas to defect,” the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]
According to KBS, even under “normal” conditions, the workers earn $980 a month, of which $665 is confiscated. Then, on returning to North Korea, the workers have to pay another quota that few of them can afford. The additional taxes would have left the workers with nothing, or even with outstanding debts to some of the officials who shake them down. Some of the workers might well have concluded that they had little to lose by defecting. Still, with all the increased security due to the rash of defections this year, escape couldn’t have been easy. The Daily NK interviewed another recent defector from the same construction company, Mokran, which employs “more than 150 workers:”
On October 12, Daily NK succeeded in establishing contact with this worker who stated, “It is hardly possible for the workers to communicate with each other, no matter how close they are, due to the strict surveillance and control system. The recent group defection is, therefore, a remarkable achievement.”
“As I recall, almost 40 percent of the company workers secretly owned smartphones. So it is possible that the information they learned through their devices may have influenced their decision,” he continued. [Daily NK]
Think of all the risks these workers took. They had to obtain cell phones, conceal them, share their dissent and discontent with one another, conspire to defect, and make a run for it — all without being overheard, seen, or ratted out in a cramped and controlled environment, and in spite of the dire consequences for their families. (Which is to say nothing of the welcome they can expect from the quislings at Minbyun when they get to South Korea.)
The Chosun Ilbo and KBS suggest that the workers may have learned about the defections of Thae Yong-ho and the Ningpo 13. Pyongyang must be worried that news of these defections could spread and trigger a cascade. This incident may lend support to that concern. After all, one defection is an act of resistance; a group defection is an organized conspiracy to resist. I emphasize — as far as I know, there were no other group defections or mutinies of North Korean overseas workers until this year. As for the catalyzing effect of the cell phones, just imagine the subversive possibilities if they became available throughout North Korea itself.
It can be presumed that the recent chain of successful defections by overseas workers and officials is having an effect on the remaining workers who are being exploited under harsh working conditions. It is also likely that those with smartphones have access to reports on North Korea’s human rights violations published by the international media.
Accordingly, some are predicting further defections by North Korean workers at overseas working sites. A source from an intelligence agency has supported this assumption, adding, “There have been an increasing number of requests from overseas North Korean workers to defect through South Korean consulates. With the increased demand, people are having to be processed in a designated order.” [Daily NK]
The Chosun Ilbo‘s reporter also expects more defections in Russia, and reports that “[a]ltogether some 40 North Koreans including loggers in Siberia have defected and are staying in a shelter” there. The usual caveats about anonymous sources apply. Mind you, these defections preceded Park Geun-hye’s recent call for North Koreans to defect, but came after the North sent out more minders to prevent any further defections.
“The North is sending more officials to China and Russia to keep watch on workers there, but it seems difficult for the regime to prevent expat workers from defecting,” a government official here said. [Chosun Ilbo]
The Mokran president and State Security Department minder have since been summoned to North Korea, where the Daily NK‘s source says “it is highly likely that [they] will be held to account for the incident and possibly executed.”
Pyongyang might also need more minders to mind its minders. According to the Donga Ilbo, a 27-year-old Kim Il-Sung University graduate and staffer at the North Korean embassy in Beijing, who was serving as an interpreter for an SSD inspection team sent to mind North Korean workers in China after the defection of the Ningpo 13 … has also defected. According to the Donga‘s sources, her job would have afforded her “a great deal of knowledge in high-level communication between the North and China.” The same report claims that another interpreter, a man in his 20s assigned to the customs office in Hyesan, defected in August and is now in South Korea. Both incidents are attributed to anonymous sources, probably within South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, so make of them what you will.
Last week and at the time of the Ningpo 13 defections, I wrote of a potential “death spiral” in which the regime would pass its financial pressures down to the workers and squeeze them for more money; minders would drive workers to the breaking point; workers would rebel, defect, or be sent home; the pressure on the remaining workers to make up for the lost earnings would increase further; and the state would increase controls over the workers and drives them even harder, pushing more of them to the breaking point. I could make an argument that this is an example of that death spiral.
And yet the state is desperate enough for money that it even risks sending former Kaesong workers to China and Russia. That might explain why negotiations a new U.N. sanctions resolution are taking so long. The U.S. side, under strong pressure from Congress, is most likely pushing to ban Pyongyang’s labor exports. Beijing must know what a financial catastrophe this would mean for Kim Jong-un.