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Human Trafficking Center

Men for Wood: State Enabled Exploitation in Russia and North Korea


Mar 2016



By Jillian Janflone, Graduate Director 

This is the second in a two-part series about North Korea and human trafficking.  The first entry can be found here.

North Korea is actively involved in the selling of its own citizens to Russia. Due to a harsh combination of economic mismanagement and natural disasters, North Korea has suffered over a decade of economic hardship.

Though known as more of a sex trafficking hub, Russia also imports North Korean men to work in logging camps. In 1967, six years after the Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation was signed between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of North Korea, Leonid Brezhnev offered Kim Ii-sung the opportunity to build labor camps in Siberia.

North Korea was then authorized to begin sending enemies of the state to the far-eastern Russian regions of Khabarovsk and Amir. The camps were beneficial to both parties: Kim got dissidents and their families far away from Pyongyang, and Brezhnev got lumberjacks for a region where even Russian workers refused to travel. Russia provided the materials, North Korea the labor, and the products— lumber, pulp and sawdust—would be split between the two countries at a rate of 65-35. As the Russians provided the materials, deemed more valuable than the workers, they were entitled to the larger share of the profits.

At the peak of their use, Siberian logging camps held at least 20,000 North Korean lumberjacks. By 2013, that number had been halved due to increasing numbers of North Koreans being called home, as the new regime found they could profit more by sending these laborers to South East Asian countries for work.

Yet camps remain, featuring little but fuel dumps, wooden barracks, and a prison for workers who refuse orders. Torture of logging workers is common, with reports of near-constant beatings. Food in the camps is lacking, with lumberjacks provided daily only three bowls of rice diluted by water. North Korea no longer sends food supplies, and the salary of the workers—frozen since 1982, as the country does not recognize inflation—comes to less than a $200 a month. Where does the lumber go? Most of the lumber continues to travel through the English-Russian company, the Russian Timber Group.

Escape from this slavery is almost impossible. Workers are held at the camps, watched by both North Korean and Russian military guard. Local officials and militia have orders from the Kremlin to push all unwanted visitors away from the town and camps, and most local residents look to the camps for survival themselves—they provide work for roughly six hundred Russians and about twenty percent of the local budget in northern areas.

The punishment for defection is repatriation to North Korea and death. All North Koreans found to have defected from the labor camps are to be sent back to North Korea under an order signed in late 2014 entitled “On Deporting and Receiving Individuals Who Unlawfully Entered or Unlawfully Reside on Territory of the Russian Federation and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Most workers in the camps are over the age of 40 and have family remaining in North Korea. Up to three generations of these people are eligible to be punished for the actions of their family member in the logging camp.

This model is spreading: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed a 2014 deal with Russia to send 20,000 North Korean workers to factories in northeastern China.

Photo Credit: Kremlin 

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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