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With the international community tightening economic sanctions on North Korean entities for their alleged involvement in nuclear and weapons activities, Pyongyang is ever more eager to earn hard currency. One of the few options for the regime to get foreign dollars is to rely on its own labor exports. VOA's Korean Service reporter Young Ran-jeon recently visited Vladivostok, Russia and filed this report voiced by Kate Woodsome. Pseudonyms were used to protect the workers interviewed for this story.
In Russia's largest port city on the Pacific Ocean, Vladivostok, several small-framed Asian men are bustling around a half-built apartment building, trying to move large metal beams. They are North Koreans sent out by their government to earn much-needed foreign currency for the country.
Kim Dong Gil came from North Korea's second largest city of Hamhung. He brags that North Korean workers have the best skills in the Russian construction market, which is also filled with laborers from Central Asia and Vietnam.
The estimated 5,000 North Koreans in Vladivostok come from various backgrounds and even include doctors.
"I didn't have any construction skills since I used to be with the military," said Kim Soon Nam, who served in the army back home. "I learned from scratch when I arrived here. I got trained by a really young person who used to curse and swear at me all the time."
Appreciation for capitalism
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Despite the stress of living and working in a foreign country, the North Koreans have come to appreciate the culture of capitalism.
"Back home I couldn't make money even if I wanted to. But here if I work hard, I can make a dozen times more," explained Han Jong Rok.
Choi Jong-kun, an assistant professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, says money is just one reason to leave home. The other is improving one's status among North Korea's political elite.
"If they bring in more money, then they would sort of have sort of upward mobility in their social class," explained Choi Jong-kun.
Potential political opening
Communist North Korea has one of the most isolated and centrally controlled economies in the world. After the country suffered a deadly famine in the mid-1990s, the government allowed private farmers markets for a few years. But it tightened the policy in 2005.
Pyongyang is known to pour money into weapons programs instead of public services. And it has kicked out many international development agencies, allowing just limited food aid primarily from China and South Korea. That has saved the population from starvation, but North Koreans still struggle with malnutrition and poor health conditions.
Pyongyang earns foreign currency from South Korean companies employing North Korean workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. But opening up to cross-border commerce means opening up politically, too. Professor Choi suggests it is easier to send workers overseas than to deal with the impact of liberalizing the economy.
"They have to think of not only economic prosperity but also they have to think of so-called regional security," said Choi. "What kinds of implications would it have to their regional security."
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Key source of foreign currency
North Korea does not reveal significant economic data, but exporting workers is considered a key source of hard foreign currency.
A report by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul estimated in 2007 that Pyongyang earns at least $40 million to $60 million a year from labor exports. Outside of Russia, the institute has tracked North Korean workers in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bangladesh, China and Mongolia.
In Vladivostok, every North Korean worker is required to pay the Pyongyang government around $800 each month.
Kim Soon Nam says he works extra hours to make sure he has money for himself.
"If we want to save some money, we have to work Sundays and holidays, too," he said. "We must earn a lot of money no matter what. North Koreans have to work from 8 am to 10 pm."
Sacrifices help family members
The North Koreans in Vladivostok usually get a five-year visa, but many get extensions to earn more money. They sleep in dormitories and live to work, spending much of their time outside the construction sites doing extra jobs in local Russian homes.
Kim Chul Woong, a welder, says he is willing to sacrifice time from his family back in Pyongyang to give his son opportunities few North Koreans enjoy, like a computer.
"The video footage on the computer can enhance children's intellectual development, but I don't have the kind of money," he said. "When I go back home after working in Russia I'll have a good amount of money. I can buy expensive stuff for my son. If he wants to do music I can buy him a violin or a guitar."
He says he is taking advantage of the work while he can get it. Kim Chul Woong says the construction jobs are dwindling in Russia because of the economic crisis. There is also greater competition from newly arriving Central Asians who are as hungry for dollars as he is.
Additional reporting by Kurt Achin in Seoul and Kate Woodsome in Washington.