The small town of Chegdomyn, Russia lies in a mountainous region of northern Siberia about 200 miles northeast of the Chinese border.
This Young Chinese Man, Who Goes by the Name, Sasha, Has Lived in Russia for Six Years as an Undocumented Worker, Selling Sunglasses on the Street. Russia Attracts Migrant Workers from Throughout Asia
Like most places in Siberia, journeying to Chegdomyn feels like arriving at the end of the earth. Just reaching Chegdomyn from the regional capital of Vladivostok requires a day and a half journey on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), a seldom-used railroad line that cuts through northern Siberia, made sleepless from the rambunctious, vodka-slugging drunks that inevitably roam Russian passenger trains.
I journeyed to Chegdomyn in the spring of 2012 in search of North Korean guestoworkers for a freelance story I wrote for Russian Life Magazine.
My 36 hour trip on the BAM to this distant Russian outpost ended just outside the town of Novi Urgal, peering through the train window as the sun rose over stretches of swamp that fanned away to the base of distant blue mountains covered in the taiga forest.
The Train Station in Novi Urgal, Just South of Chegdomyn
When the train pulled into Novi Urgal, I buttoned my jacket and stepped outside into the chilly air.
Then I walked to a nearby road and started hitchhiking to Chegdomyn, about twenty miles north on a pothole-stricken back road.
A local, named Sergey, with bushy, white hair and wide eyes, soon pulled over in his truck.
“My family came here from Ukraine when I was thirteen,” Sergey explained as we flew over the rough country road at a deathly 80MPH while I made a futile search for a seat belt.
“Life is wonderful here,” Sergey remarked, taking his hands off the wheel and pointing at a mountain stream, still frozen over with ice even in early May. “Look, you can drink from that,” he said, “here you don’t need to buy water.”
The truck’s shocks screamed as we bounced over frost heaves and cracks in the shattered asphalt.
“Are there roads like this in America?” Sergey asked.
“In America we have really nice roads and really bad roads,” I said.
“Ha,” he exclaimed, lighting a cigarette and shifting into high gear. “In Russia all the roads are bad!”
Coal Mine, Chegdomyn, Russia
As Sergey drove, the forest eventually opened to a clearing with a line of log cabins and the tall shaft of a coal mine painted in white, blue, and red stripes to resemble the Russian flag. Sergey floored it up a steep hill towards Chegdomyn and we passed a bus full of miners, faces black with soot.
Sergey turned off at a lookout point on the hilltop just outside of town. Football stadium-sized heaps of coal and rock rose around the mine.
In the distance, snow-capped peaks of the Stanovoy-Khrebet Mountains glistened in the sun.
The Stanovoy-Khrebet Mountains (Notice the Giant Pile of Coal in the Center)
Chegdomyn could double as a living museum of the Soviet-era.
The one main road through town is lined by rows of aging, rectangular Soviet apartment blocks, some only half-built and abandoned.
They look just like this:
Half-Finished Soviet Apartment, Chegdomyn, Russia
Coal extraction is Chegdomyn’s lifeblood.
Dark smoke billowing from a slender smoke stack filters down into the town square and blows about in murky cyclones.
Even the muddy ruts between the apartment blocks are stained black.
Chegdomyn’s Town Square
A small lumber mill just outside town hints at the Chegdomyn’s previous function as a major timber producer.
Chegdomyn’s small museum, located just down the street from the town square, provides evidence of the migrant workers who once labored in the forests here; within the museum, past dioramas about coal mining and taxidermies of sables and black bears, a small exhibit on the region’s lumber industry displays several black and white photos of North Koreans sawing massive trees nearly the size of redwoods.
The story of North Korean migrant workers in Russia dates back to the end of the Second World War. On August 9, 1945, when the Allies dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the Korean peninsula had already been occupied by the Japanese for 35 years. On that same day in early August, Soviet forces launched their own attack on Japan.
The Japanese surrender, just days later, effectively ended the Second World War and left Korea divided, with the Soviet Union to manage the north, and the Americans to administer the south.
The end of Japanese occupation on the Korean peninsula gave birth to both South Korea—one of Asia’s most developed countries and strongest economies—and North Korea, a despotic, Stalinist dictatorship perhaps best known for its labor camps, famines, and a megalomaniacal cult of personality revolving around these two dudes:
Portraits of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s ‘Eternal President’ and Kim Jong-il the Now Deceased ‘Supreme Leader’ (Left to Right) Hang on the wall of the Korean Center in the State Regional Library in Khabarovsk, Russia. The Korean Center is Stocked with Korean-Language Books by North and South Korean Consulates in Russia. These Portraits Were Recently Removed.
North Korean migrant workers have been employed in Russia’s most easterly territory since the Soviets installed Kim Il-sung as the North Korean leader in 1945.
Ironically, just three years earlier, the U.S. began the Bracero Program, a 1942 binational agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that brought Mexican workers into the U.S. on temporary contracts to fill labor shortages during the Second World War. The Bracero Program’s creation marked the first time that foreign workers arrived in the U.S. on temporary labor contracts.
The Bracero Program was eventually formalized to become the U.S. Guestworker Program, which each year brings over 100,000 foreign workers into the U.S. to labor in the agricultural, forestry, and construction industries, among others, on short-term labor contracts.
North Korean Logging Camp Near Chegdomyn, Russia (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHEGDOMYN REGIONAL STUDIES MUSEUM)
Although the Soviet Union dissolved over two decades ago, Russia’s post-WW2 tradition of contracting foreign guestworkers from a neighboring state lives on just like in the U.S.
North Koreans enter Russia on three-year contracts as guestworkers, with the option of staying longer if they perform well, to labor in construction, agriculture, and most often, remote logging camps in the Siberian taiga.
Most studies estimate that 3,000 North Koreans currently work in Russian logging camps, while others put the figure at over 10,000.
Even more inconsistent are the rumors concerning these workers quality of life in Russia.
A Small Logging Operation Outside Chegdomyn Hints at This Russian Town’s Former Role as a Major Lumber Producer
Some reports claim that North Korean guestworkers are unfed and receive pitiful wages of just $100 a month. Others suggest that North Koreans benefit by escaping their country’s harsh conditions, or merely earning an income to send home to their families.
What is certain is that through this tradition which has persisted since Soviet times, the North Korean government gains valuable lumber in exchange for the workers it provides to Russian lumber companies who, in turn, benefit by acquiring highly-motivated laborers willing to work for little.
My first contact with North Korean guestworkers occurred in the Russian port city of Vladivostok, just before my journey to Chegdomyn, while visiting Serge Patlakh, an old friend and designer for the Vladivostok Film Festival, in his offices by the Sea of Japan.
“Most newspapers in Vladivostok contain advertisements that list a phone number with two words: Cheap Koreans,” Patlakh explained. “North Korean workers live here in very closed communities with a chief who can speak Russian. You never see them alone, but I do often see groups of them on the street.”
“They are very good workers,” Patlakh added, “but not well paid, unfortunately. Most employers have to hire them though. Here, Russians are more expensive and mostly drunk.”
Before I left, Patlakh took me downstairs from his office to a children’s theater under renovation. In a wide hall with rows of upholstered chairs set before a stage, five North Korean workers furiously painted a banister in silence. One shot us a timid glance, then snapped his eyes back to the painting.
“Look,” Patlakh whispered, “aren’t they like zombies?”
North Korean Guestworkers (Center) in a Construction Site Alongside an Inflatable Children’s Castle in Vladivostok, Russia. Just Like in the U.S., Russian Guestworkers Have Almost No Contact With the Local Communities Where They Work
This glimpse of the North Koreans is what inspired me to endure the 36-hour sleepless train ride to Chegdomyn.
In the mid-nineties, several years after the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia began opening up to the West, several foreign journalists reported that gated North Korean lumber camps operated near Chegdomyn where loudspeakers proclaimed the glories of Kim Il-sung and workers lived in squalid conditions.
An outdated Lonely Planet guidebook I found in Vladivostok even described Chegdomyn as an, “interesting side trip,” where tourists could easily see North Korean monuments and workers.
You heard me, Lonely Planet.
The curator of Chegdomyn’s small museum, an old woman with lustrous lengths of silver hair, told me that the Koreans had left town years ago.
Disappointed by this news, but still determined to figure out what happened, I walked out of the museum and asked the guard at a nearby school where I might find the Korean architecture in Chegdomyn. Instead of answering my question, he left and returned with a middle-aged English teacher with short brown hair, named Lena.
“The North Koreans left here ten years ago after the timber companies decided not to renew their contract,” Lena said. “They once built an oriental pavilion in our market, but they burnt that, and any other constructions they had made, before leaving, I think because they were angry.”
“I’m not surprised they were upset,” she added. “Their lives were much better here than in North Korea.”
It was late afternoon and Lena invited me to tea in her apartment.
Lena’s Apartment Building
“Now many people in the Far East of Russia are leaving for far-off cities like St. Petersburg, places with better jobs and opportunities,” Lena said as we walked along a muddy path between the crumbling apartment blocks. “I think of leaving too,” she admitted, “but this is my home. Still, sometimes I ask my parents, ‘Why? Why did you have to move here, to Chegdomyn?”
As she spoke a young man passed us, pulling a large metal bucket strapped to a rickety wooden cart.
“He’s bringing water home from a well,” Lena explained. “Here, we must take drinking water from wells, not from the faucet. People here live in the apartment buildings during the winter,” she said, “and go to dachas [rustic cabins] in the woods during summer to grow vegetables. Do people in American small towns also live in apartments like these?” she asked, pointing to the empty Soviet relics that rose from the taiga around Chegdomyn.
“In America people in small towns usually have their own homes,” I said. “Their houses are like dachas, only bigger.”
“To be honest,” she said, “I’m relieved that the Koreans are gone. Logging deforested the area so much that the wind now blows harder here than it did when I was a girl, making it much colder in winter.
Lena stopped at an old Soviet apartment near the town square and led me up a dark stairwell to her small apartment, a cramped three-room affair that she shared with her teenage son and aging father. Much of it had been redone with cheap linoleum to give it a modern look. At a small table in her kitchen, we drank tea and talked about the North Koreans.
“There were once many North Koreans in Chegdomyn,” Lena said. “During the day, they could walk around and go shopping. Many spoke enough Russian to get by. At night they had to return to their camp because they did a head count. Here in Russia they at least had some freedom to work and earn money for their families. But their lives weren’t easy here, either. They all wore the same clothes, one long sleeve shirt and pants with no coat, even in winter.”
North Korean Guestworkers on a Labor Camp in Chegdomyn, Russia (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHEGDOMYN REGIONAL STUDIES MUSEUM)
“You know, when the Koreans were here they ate any dogs they could find,” Lena explained. “Because Koreans eat dogs! And snakes too! In summer, they hunted snakes to make their traditional medicines.”
“When did you last see North Koreans here?” I asked.
“Actually,” she said, “several weeks ago I saw three North Korean men walking through town. I’m certain they were North Korean because they wore badges with a picture of Kim Il-sung. It’s possible that Koreans still work in this region, somewhere far away in the forest.”
Hanging Out With Lena
Lena’s theory may be correct. In 2009 reporter, Simon Ostrovsky, made a documentary for the BBC about North Korean logging camps near the Siberian city of Tynda, about 500 miles northwest of Chegdomyn.
Two years later, Ostrovsky returned with photographers from the online media company, Vice News, and found the once bustling camps he had previously filmed abandoned. The photographers later discovered that the camps were moved to locations deep in the taiga accessible only by rarely-used rail lines.
After speaking with Lena, I hitchhiked back to Novi Urgal as the sun set.
A corpulent old man, named Ivan, whose round belly unfolded around the lower part of the steering wheel, pulled over in a gray sedan. He drove even faster than Sergey, the guy who gave me a lift to Chegdomyn.
“Are you traveling alone?” Ivan asked.
“Yes,” I said.
To avoid a washed out section of road ahead, Ivan swerved towards the ditch into a patch of loose sand and hit the gas. The car fishtailed as we careened back onto the rutted asphalt.
“That’s very dangerous,” he said, shaking his head with concern
“Why,” I asked.
“Things here are different now,” he said. “During Soviet times, men treated each other like brothers. Now, they act like wolves.”
Several people in Chegdomyn told me that most North Korean guestworkers now labor in Russian logging camps far away near Tynda. With my flight back to the U.S. leaving from Vladivostok in just several days, and my finances for the trip steadily dwindling, I gave up on finding the North Korean labor camps of eastern Siberia.
Another sleepless, 36-hour train ride brought me back to Vladivostok, a city overtaken by ambitious construction projects slated to modernize the city in anticipation of its hosting the annual APEC summit the following September.
North Korean Guestworkers at a Construction Site in the Russian Port City of Vladivostok
In Vladivostok, scores of guestworkers from Uzbekistan and North Korea worked to install new sidewalks and bridges. A Russian student I met once compared migrant workers in Russia’s Far East to Mexican laborers in the U.S. Now, while walking through Vladivostok, I observed blonde Russian girls strut past workers laying bricks on fresh mortar, and, for a moment, Vladivostok actually resembled a typical city in southern California supported by Mexican migrant laborers.
In the last seventy years, industrialized countries, like Russia and the U.S., have increasingly utilized guestworkers to complete low-paying, unskilled work. The current U.S. Guestworker Program provides infinitely more labor rights and protections than the one between Russia and North Korea.
But just like the North Koreans charged with clear cutting the Siberian taiga, American guestworkers usually work in isolated parts of the U.S. and live in trailers on their job sites. Like the North Koreans, they also aren’t allowed to change their jobs if they’re not happy with the working conditions, they are sometimes paid less than the national minimum wage, they’re often afraid to give their names to journalists for fear of retaliation by their bosses if they speak about the working conditions, and the indentured servitude-esque work days often last 14 hours or more.
The Dry Deserts of Mexico are a World Away From North Korea, But Both Countries Provide Guestworkers, Who are Often Exploited, to Their Powerful Northern Neighbors
“We only left our job site in the U.S. once a week, when the boss took us to Wal-Mart to buy groceries,” a Mexican guestworker, who asked to be anonymous, once told me. “It’s interesting to work in another country,” he said, “but it also felt like being in jail, too. I know that people who cross the border illegally, and work in the U.S. with fake documents have more rights and freedom than I did.”
As the debate on immigration reform in the U.S. has become wound up in legalizing undocumented immigrants and pumping billions more dollars into border security, migrant rights activists and foreign guestworkers are left to wonder if Congress will ever talk about improving the working conditions of those who seek legal employment in the U.S.
Immigration reform presents an amazing opportunity to fix the current system of bringing foreign workers into the U.S. on labor contracts.
But right now, the current U.S. Guestworker Program looks a lot like the one used by North Korea.
Parts of this story originally appeared in the September, 2012 edition of Russian Life Magazine. To learn more about North Korean guestoworkers in Russia, check out this fabulous documentary by VICE News.