One North Korean who worked abroad says that as a waitress in China, she was forced to put up with male customers who groped her and tried to get her drunk. Two others recall the frozen bodies of their countrymen stored in Russian logging camps. Another says he toiled for up to 16 hours a day at a Kuwaiti construction site surrounded by wire fences.
As difficult as those lives were, the four workers told The Associated Press, it beat staying in North Korea. The jobs actually conveyed status back home, and were so coveted that people used bribes and family connections to get them.
Defectors who had worked overseas from the 1990s until the early 2000s said they had to submit much of their salaries to Pyongyang authorities and never received some of their promised wages. But they said the money they did receive, sometimes earned through moonlighting, still greatly exceeded what they had earned at home. (The average monthly wage for ordinary North Korean workers is less than $1, according to defectors, though many North Korean families now make money via businesses in unauthorized markets.)
Their monthly average income while abroad is estimated at $120 to $150, according to the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies. They said they were also fed relatively well, placed under less strict surveillance and given a rare chance to see the world and learn truths about their homeland.
“From our viewpoint, it’s labor exploitation. But for them, going abroad is a special benefit. They view it as a chance to get away from abysmal lives at home,” said Go Myong-Hyun of the Asan Institute, co-author of a 2014 research paper on North Korean workers. Read more