VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — In the Davydova neighborhood in the northern part of town, one apartment block after another has been under construction for years. Thus, there are always North Korean laborers around.
They accept lower wages than Russians, work on weekends and, reportedly, hand over their wages to their government. Their shabby outfits are all similar — not the Mao tunics of their Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, but striped shirts and plaid pants, which they buy in the Vietnamese market. Sometimes their shoes are falling apart. The North Koreans always travel in twos and threes when they stroll in the city. Like young Arabs, the men hold hands.
If North Korea feels close here in this port city on the Sea of Japan, it is — just 140 km away. Vladivostok provides a back window onto the Stalinist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
North Korea again drew the world’s attention with the visit to Pyongyang last week of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. It is possible that President will follow. Although this was a highly controlled visit, Albright’s motorcade reportedly took her past cabbage fields, dilapidated, unlit apartment buildings and roadside billboards reading “Let’s build a powerful nation.”
Still, for a glimpse of the life of the ordinary citizen of the Hermit Kingdom, Vladivostok’s North Korean workers may provide a more realistic perspective than that — and certainly more than a lavish state dinner with Kim.
Roughly 4,000 North Koreans work in the far eastern Primorye region, mostly in construction, logging and other manual labor, said Sergei Pushkarev, head of the Federal Migration Service’s local office. This compares to 8,000 Chinese.
In the Russian border town of Khasan, Galina Kachanova, a train dispatcher who has visited North Korea to inspect rails and work out timetables, said that when she last visited several years ago, North Korea was on its knees. Three of her seven colleagues had died of malnutrition, including a father of seven who starved to death because he was giving his own food to his children.
“They’re brought up as very fanatical people, and usually they don’t admit that they have hunger in their country,” Kachanova said. “But lately, they’ve become more open about it.”
Once, a North Korean worker dropped by our apartment looking for repair work. It is the chance to moonlight and thereby earn a little cash on the side that makes work in Russia so popular.
The scrawny 32-year-old worker was new in Russia. We had no work for him, but we served him a meal of fish and potatoes. He wolfed it down. “At home, there isn’t enough food for everybody,” he said. Then he demonstrated his penury by poking his fingers through the holes in his pants. “Do you have any small men’s pants?” he asked.
We gave him a pair of boy’s jeans that fit just fine. Then he asked if we had any old videos he might take with him.
In the Soviet era, forbidden cassettes of “Deep Purple,” “Abba” and “Uriah Heep” leaked into the Russian Far East through sailors who traveled abroad. Perhaps nowadays, somewhere in Rajin or Hongwan, North Koreans eager for a glimpse of the West are secretly gathering around their television. They are watching “Groundhog Day.”
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