Homeland Stays With North Koreans in Russia : Labor: 100 workers remain under tight control, Russian employers and neighbors say. Little contact with residents is allowed.


The door leads into a dark lobby, the concrete floor is cracked and crumbling. This is Botongkang dormitory--an isolated outpost of North Korea in the Russian Far East.

The building is home to almost 100 North Korean laborers who work for bargain wages on construction sites on this part of Sakhalin Island, 4,300 miles east of Moscow.

There is almost no contact between the laborers and the city’s 40,000 ethnic Koreans, the result of a slave-labor colony Japan set up to work in coal mines during World War II.


But Russians who work with the North Koreans on a daily basis say their lives give a glimmer of conditions in the workers’ reclusive homeland 750 miles to the south.

Neighbors and employers describe the workers’ lives as tightly controlled--much like at home.

“They behave more like prisoners than construction workers,” said Irina Sidorova, 64, of Promstroy Co., the construction firm that began bringing Korean laborers to Russia more than eight years ago.

Workers stay for three-year contracts and are not permitted extended contact with outsiders. They have political study sessions every evening after work and exams on their single day off, Saturday.

Russians who have been in the dormitory say the workers must log any unusual contacts with outsiders in daily reports. The building has been specially wired to carry news broadcast from Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, into every room.

Local television and radio is strictly forbidden, even to leaders. A single video player, controlled by the dorm’s leaders, is available to play videotapes brought from North Korea.

“They sometimes walk around the building for exercise,” said Dmitri Delgov, 21, who has lived across the street from the dormitory for six years. “But we don’t see too much of them. They leave for work early in the morning and don’t come back until after seven at night.”

Only workers who are leaving families behind--and thus unlikely to escape for fear their loved ones will be punished--are selected for construction jobs in Russia. They often are relatives of the Communist Party elite.

Though they have few freedoms, North Korean workers in Russia--unlike their compatriots at home--do not generally face hunger. North Korea has been hit with severe floods and is struggling with acute food shortages this year.

With hard work and a bit of luck, the workers on Sakhalin have the opportunity to take home coveted foreign goods such as refrigerators, television sets and motor scooters.

It takes around three years for a worker to scrape together enough to buy a secondhand Russian refrigerator or television set. No attempt is made to hide the purchases, which are sent to North Korea by rail container.

Ambitions to own foreign goods does not mean North Koreans agree with Russia’s recent economic reforms. Dmitry Egarov, a businessman who was considering hiring a North Korean work crew to wallpaper his apartment, described his encounter with a North Korean official in charge of arranging the workers’ contracts.

“He became angry when I asked him about perestroika,” Egarov said. “He said that North Koreans could not trust Russians, because this country was a traitor to communist ideals.”

True to the North Korean ideal of juche, or self-reliance, the workers grow most of their own food and catch and preserve their own fish on days off.

As is the rule throughout North Korea, portraits of the late leader Kim Il Sung and his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Il, hang in every room of Botongkang.

The portraits are painted in such a way that the eyes appear to follow the viewer around the room. They are always positioned about head level, to give the impression the Kims are looking down.

Though the workers rarely meet with neighbors, they do socialize with one another.

The workers put in long hours at low wages building several of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk’s government buildings. A local construction official said more workers have been requested from North Korea.

“They are very kind to children in the neighborhood,” said Natalya Ivanova, whose job is to clean the street in front of Botongkang. “I suppose they miss their own children back home.”