Bundled up against the chill, a logger leans on his chain saw, sending a fountain of wood chips into the air and a larch log crashing to the ground.
A colleague swiftly grabs a long pole with a hook at the end, reaches for the 10-foot log and pulls it onto a conveyor belt, jumping deftly over the rolling piece of wood.
This is an operation of the Russian company Tynda-Les, but 60% of its 3,000 workers are North Koreans. Managers credit the foreign laborers with making the company one of the biggest timber harvesters in the Russian Far East, a vast, sparsely populated territory.
“Koreans are good workers. I haven’t seen anyone better here,” said Andrei Tereshchenko, director of the Dzhalingra logging camp.
Russians are reluctant to take up the work, given the low pay and harsh climate of the permafrost. In winter, temperatures can drop to 40 degrees below zero, and even in high summer, ice lurks under patches of moss in the forest. The remote logging camp is 625 miles northwest of the nearest large city, Khabarovsk, and 3,185 miles east of Moscow.
But the work is a huge boon for North Koreans, whose diplomatically isolated nation is among of the world’s poorest. The $200 average monthly pay is several times higher than they can earn at home. For North Korea’s government, the ability to send workers abroad is a safety valve to reduce discontent.
Tynda-Les’ North Korean partner, Logging Company Number Two, gets 35% of the timber that the loggers harvest. The state-owned company sells the wood to China and Japan, earning just enough to pay wages, buy food and pay for travel home, says Tynda-Les director Nikolai Sarnavsky.
“So far, it hasn’t been that profitable to cooperate,” said Kwak Kwan Zin, the Korean company’s chief of external economic relations. “We need to cut back on spending and save diesel fuel and everything else in our work.”
Although they’re in Russia, the North Koreans live much as if they are at home. At Dzhalingra, their dormitories are strung with red banners proclaiming: “We will give our heart for Mother Korea.” A room is set aside for lectures by communist political officers and, from time to time, groups of workers travel to a North Korean representative office in Khabarovsk to join their nation’s communist party.
The workers are under constant surveillance.
“You shouldn’t photograph these people,” Kwak instructed a reporter attempting to take a snapshot of three repairmen in oily garb fixing a truck motor.
He then growled at the trio in Korean and they scurried off. “They wouldn’t look good in a picture,” Kwak said.
Portraits of North Korea’s late founder, Kim Il Sung, and the country’s current leader, his son Kim Jong Il, occupy a prominent place in the chief engineer’s office. However, in a bow to Russia, they share shelf space with a collection of empty vodka bottles.
North Koreans oversee their workers’ settlements and, until recently, they often meted out draconian punishment for infractions of discipline.
“There used to be a large prison here” for North Korean workers, said Tamara Filippova, a senior immigration inspector in Tynda, the town where Tynda-Les is based. “They stood bent over because the ceilings were so low.”
The North Korean worker camps had officers who hunted down escaped workers “like hounds,” she said.
Now, North Korea’s Labor Security Service has a representative in every settlement, but its agents no longer search for escapees, leaving that task to the Russians. North Koreans no longer burst into tears and beg not to be turned over to their employer when they are caught skipping work, Filippova says.
North Korean workers say one of the most serious punishments today is demotion to jobs unrelated to logging that are poorly paid.
“If a driver doesn’t go for timber but goes fishing, we lay him off. Let him stoke a boiler,” Kwak said.
There haven’t been escape attempts recently, but 257 North Korean loggers in the Tynda region are unaccounted for, officials say.
They were among about 800 of the 1,000 North Korean timber workers who left the camps in the mid-1990s when Russia was in an economic slump. Tynda-Les couldn’t provide work for its North Korean partners, and the Korean company had no money to send the workers home.
The loggers flooded into Tynda, a town of 46,000 people, and offered to harvest cottage gardens, chop firewood or renovate apartments. Some bribed train conductors to let them travel to other Russian regions.
“They were absolutely hungry and left to the mercy of fate. They worked for a bowl of soup,” Filippova said. “I have a feeling their leaders told them to be on their own for one or two years and return when things got straightened out.”