North Korean economic migration to Russia dates back to before the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The first groups of North Korean laborers started working in Russia’s fishing and forest industries as early as 1946, when the northern part of the Korean peninsula was under Soviet military control.
Unlike most instances of Soviet-North Korean cooperation, this labor project was economically viable from the beginning: the Soviet Union and then Russia benefited from a new cheap and disciplined workforce while North Koreans benefited by earning foreign currency and sending it home.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, between 15,000 and 20,000 North Korean workers were employed in the Soviet Union.
Because North Koreans were hesitant to travel to Siberia in winter, they were initially sent there by force. But the situation drastically changed once they discovered that their neighbors were coming home rich. Older North Koreans still remember their surprise at seeing young people on motorcycles in their towns, the owners having brought Soviet models back to the Korean peninsula.
It’s true that workers received very low salaries. But they also received free room and board, meaning they could bring most of their earnings home. After a two-year stint, which was the typical length of a work contract in the U.S.S.R. at that time, the average North Korean could save a few thousand Soviet rubles.
Even then, North Koreans had to pay to work abroad: a supervisor who recommended a worker for a job in the U.S.S.R. generally received a television set as a bribe.
Now, payments are made in dollars or yuan and total around $500 to $700. It costs much less to work in other countries: $200 to work in China, $400 to $500 for work in the Middle East.