A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the lack of protection under the Labor Code is a result of the two countries not having an agreement that outlines working conditions, which relieves both sides of any obligations.

“Such an agreement is currently in the works, and is about two-thirds ready,” the spokesman said. In the meantime, he said, the burden falls on regional authorities to work out the details of any agreement or contract, which are “often based on a very old framework that dates back to Soviet times.”

Yury Zhilkinsky, an official in the Science and Technology Ministry’s forestry department, said North Korean agents still keep a watchful eye over the discipline of the workers, and rule violators are sent home. “But because there are no regular trains, the hooligans are kept in a special intermediary point until a train is available,” he said, declining to elaborate on the nature of the “special intermediary point.”

“Salaries, medical care, and transportation to and from North Korea are the responsibility of the North Korean side, as is maintaining work discipline,” said Zhilkinsky.

“The Russian side only provides equipment [and the trees],” he said, adding, however, that when North Korean state management has difficulties with food supplies, the Russian side sends “the occasional railcar of pollock, and a few bags of rice.”

“The Koreans seem to like pollock a lot,” Zhilkinsky said. Pollock is a variety of codfish.

Officials in Krasnoyarsk said there were at least a thousand North Korean construction workers in the region who are valued because they are cheap.

The North Korean company Renrado, however, claims to pay its workers, who are under strict supervision across Siberia and the Far East, between $500 and $800 a month. The average salary in Russia is about $100, while freelance construction workers in cash-rich Moscow rarely manage to pull in $300.

North Koreans are working with the permission of their government in European Russia as well. There are dozens of small groups of North Korean sharecroppers 170 kilometers south of Moscow, in the Kaluga region, said Nikolai Kamensky, the local administration official responsible for external economic relations.

Local agricultural enterprises assign the groups a plot of land and take a percentage of the harvest — a practice found in many other regions, Kamensky said.