N Korean loggers flee Russian 'slave' camps

SEVERAL hundred North Koreans have escaped from gulag- style logging camps in Siberia. The mass break-out turns a spotlight on the shadowy camps where, Russian journalists say, North Koreans are kept as 'virtual slaves' to cut timber in a shameful deal that is profitable to Moscow and Pyongyang.

As many as 150 of the loggers are trying to defect to South Korea, according to government sources in Seoul. North Korea angrily denies the reports, describing them as 'rumour, unfounded propaganda and sheer fabrication'. But one of the escapees, contacted this week in the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok, said economic hardship at home and bad living conditions in the camps were driving many of the loggers to think seriously of defecting.

Park Dong Bok, who comes from the northern part of North Korea, close to the Chinese border, had been working for two years in one of the Siberian timber camps close to the city of Khabarovsk. Although on Russian territory, the 16 camps are run entirely by North Koreans, watched over by Pyongyang's notorious security police who confiscate passports so workers cannot travel, even within Russia. Russian officials are not allowed inside the camps, despite reports of serious abuses, but they tolerate this because the North Koreans are an exceedingly cheap labour force. A portion of the timber is given to Russia and the rest goes to North Korea.

Mr Park is 36, and like all the lumberjacks in Siberia - estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 - he has a wife and family back in North Korea. The loggers' families act as virtual hostages to discourage defection attempts.

Though the workers initially volunteer to come to Russia, conditions are reminiscent of Stalin's forced labour camps of the 1950s. Life is unpleasant, particularly in the winter when there is no heating - though food rations were better than at home, said Mr Park: the loggers received rice every day, meat twice a month - usually pork imported from China - and grew their own vegetables. In North Korea most people receive meat only on a few feast days, and rice is often replaced with low-quality cornmeal.

But discipline in the camps was harsh, he said. There were frequent beatings by camp guards, and two types of prison: a log house for minor infractions and solitary confinement cells for 'ideological crimes', such as criticising the government of Kim Il Sung. The loggers dreaded these prisons: sleep was impossible, rations were reduced, beatings were commonplace and not all prisoners got out alive. The work day began at 5am, and continued until 8pm in the summer, 5pm in the shorter winter days. Rest days were rare. Each logger received one new set of clothes per year, and most worked for three years before returning home. They earned an average of dollars 25 a month (paid in North Korean won), and those able to cut 50 per cent more than their target could earn a maximum of dollars 40 a month.

To supplement their income, some of the loggers secretly distilled alcohol in the forest and sold it to Russians who came to the perimeter fences at night. Russian prostitutes also arrived at night.

Mr Park was driven to defect by news from home. Because his father had retired, his family's food ration had been reduced, and to supplement their diet his mother started dealing on the black market. She was discovered, and the family was deported to a poor mountain area as punishment. His wife divorced him and took her two children with her.

With nothing to hold him back, Mr Park decided to escape and seek asylum in South Korea. Other North Koreans he worked with escaped because of hardship at home, and the news about the outside world that they received from illicit contacts with Russians. Since South Korea opened a consulate in Vladivostok last year, the North Koreans have made this city their first destination: it is several hundred miles from the logging camps, compared with the 5,000-mile journey to the next South Korean diplomatic post in Moscow.

Mr Park, who speaks a little Russian, is hiding in Vladivostok until his asylum request is processed. He is afraid North Korean agents will track him down. The South Korean government is still debating whether to accept the asylum requests. Normally Seoul receives only a handful every year, from North Korean diplomats in Africa or Asia.

Officials are concerned that, if all the loggers are accepted, many more may flee the camps, upsetting relations with Moscow and the tentative peace talks with Pyongyang.

Russian journalists first brought the plight of the North Koreans to light in 1991. The existence of the camps, which first started operating in the 1950s, has been kept secret, and few Russians know about them.

North Korea's official news agency betrayed the government's embarrassment, saying reports of defecting loggers were 'a malicious abuse and slander' and 'an unpardonable insult to the Korean working class, who are masters of the country'.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Administrator

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company are a world leadin...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral