One North Korean who worked abroad says he toiled for up to 16 hours a day at a Kuwaiti construction site surrounded by wire fences.Two others recall the frozen bodies of their countrymen stored in Russian logging camps. As difficult as those lives were, the workers told The Associated Press, it beat staying in the North. The jobs actually conveyed status back home, and were so coveted that people used bribes and family connections to get them.
“I beat the odds of 1 in 12 to become a waitress … People’s views of jobs in North Korea are totally different from here,” said Lee SoungHee, 42, another North Korean, worked at a North Korean-run restaurant in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian in the early 2000s and now lives in South Korea.
The stories of Lee and the other three workers, all of whom have also defected to rival South Korea, speak volumes about how different life appears when viewed through a North Korean lens.
The country has sent tens of thousands of workers abroad with a mission to bring in foreign currency. Human-rights organizations have called those workers modern-day slaves, while also decrying human-rights abuses North Koreans face back home. To the workers themselves, there is little debate about which plight is more favorable.
The defectors, who worked overseas from the 1990s until the early 2000s, said they had to submit much of their salaries to Pyongyang authorities and never received some of their promised wages. But they said the money they did receive, sometimes earned through moonlighting, still greatly exceeded what they had earned at home.
They said they were also fed relatively well, placed under less strict surveillance and given a rare chance to see the world and learn truths about their homeland.
Lee had expected her overseas experience to elevate her social standing so that she could have a husband with a better job. The other three workers, all men, wanted to buy cassette players and refrigerators after their typical three years of service.
“I had seen people who had returned home after foreign service smoking good cigarettes and going out for a beer,” said Lim Il, who worked at a Kuwait City construction site in the late 1990s. “For ordinary people, things like those were ‘rice cake in a picture’” —a Korean expression equivalent to “pie in the sky.”
North Koreans working overseas more recently hold similar views, according to South Korean experts and activists who have interviewed current workers or defectors with recent foreign service experience.
The average monthly wage for ordinary North Korean workers is less than $1, according to defectors. Many North Korean families now make money via businesses in unauthorized markets.
“From our viewpoint, it’s labor exploitation. But for them, going abroad is a special benefit. They view it as a chance to get away from abysmal lives at home,” said Go Myong-Hyun of the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, co-author of a 2014 research paper on North Korean workers. “The problem is that North Korea is making bad use of this.”
North Korea denies its workers suffer abuses, calling international criticism a plot to undermine its system.
South Korea’s spy agency says 50,000 to 60,000 North Korean workers are in about 50 countries, mostly Russia and China; some experts believe the number of foreign workers is much higher. The Seoul-based North Korea Strategy Center said in a 2012 paper that the country’s foreign workers earned the North between $150 million and $230 million annually.
There is consensus among outside experts that North Korea is pushing to expand labor exports because long-running international sanctions have left the country with few legitimate sources of foreign currency.
They are employed in factories and restaurants in China; and logging camps and construction sites in Russia. Others work construction in the Middle East, or are in Africa building giant political statues, teaching taekwondo or providing health care. Their monthly average income was estimated at $120 to $150, according to the Asan Institute.
The North usually sends relatively affluent, loyal citizens who it believes can be less affected by foreign cultures. The vast majority are married men whose families must stay home, discouraging would-be defectors, analysts and activists specializing in North Korea said.
Defections of North Korean workers abroad appear to be relatively uncommon, though statistics are not available. An exception occurred last week, when South Korea announced the defections of 13 North Koreans who had worked abroad together at a restaurant.
Lee was teaching literature to North Korean middle- and high-school students when she jumped at the chance to be a waitress abroad. Lee said her father gave local officials up to 15,000 won (about $70) to help her land the waitress job. Others chosen were fellow teachers, doctors and new college graduates.
Lim used 20 bottles of high-quality liquor and 30 packs of cigarettes as bribes. Kim Sae-gil, a truck driver at a Siberian logging camp, said a relative pulled some strings.
“When I was informed I would go abroad, I felt really, really happy,” said Kim, 49, who worked in Siberia from 1995 to 1998. “It was a feeling that I’ve never experienced since then. It’s still probably the best moment in my life.”
Much of the workers’ actual experience overseas, however, was grim.
Lee SoungHee said she was given only one day off per month and had to work even when she learned her mother had died. She said secret police agents monitored waitresses and beat them for hiding tips.
Lee found some positives. She said she enjoyed fruits she had never eaten before, including pineapples, prickly pears and longans.
Lim, a novelist, was a carpenter during his several months in Kuwait. He said he never received his promised $120-a-month salary, though he worked from dawn to midnight at a site surrounded by wire fences. He said he was frustrated when he learned Bangladesh and Indonesian workers nearby earned at least $450 per month.
Lim said he was allowed to moonlight at other construction sites after promising North Korean officials a cut of the extra income.
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 send them home in groups.
Kim said he had some extra income because he was sometimes allowed to collect wild fruits to sell. He enjoyed drinking alcohol with colleagues and deriding then-leader Kim Jong Il, the late father of current leader Kim Jong Un.
“We just called him ‘Kim Jong Il’ though we called him ‘the general’ when we were in North Korea,” he said. “We sometimes even called him a ‘little child’ as he was small. We had such freedom there.”
All four workers eventually escaped while working overseas.
“I didn’t want to go back to an inferior country,” said Lee SoungHee, who ran away. Lee now teaches defector students in Seoul.
She later learned authorities in North Korea forced her relatives to move to remote places or put them under stricter surveillance systems in reprisal against her defection.
The other three workers know nothing about their families’ fates.
Kim said that although he decided not to return to North Korea “after getting a taste for freedom,” he misses his family, including a baby daughter he left behind.
“She should be 22 now,” said Kim, who is now a janitor near Seoul. “I’m still thinking about her.”