Five days after two North Koreans died at their lodgings in a hotel in the west of Moscow, speculation is growing in the Russian tabloids about the pair’s cause of death.
Chkhe Men Sen, 37 and Khon Gim Chkol, 22, both complained of breathing difficulties while at their lodgings on Yermakova Roscha Street on Saturday, according to local Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. Chkhe was dead before the ambulance arrived and Khon died in hospital.
Seven other foreign workers staying nearby complained of health problems, two of which were also Korean and were hospitalised with an unspecified infection. Now Russia’s consumer rights watchdog Rospotrebnadzor has been informed about the incidents.
The North Korean authorities are yet to make a statement about the deaths while the Russian government has not commented on the infection.
This isn’t the first time North Koreans have died on Russian soil. Earlier this year a North Korean man was found dead in a shipping container while working on the new football stadium in St Petersburg. A reporter, Havard Melnes, writing for Josimar magazine, discovered that 110 North Koreans were working on the construction site at Zenit Arena, mostly doing cosmetic jobs like paintwork.
The majority of workers on the stadium came from Tajikistan, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, but the presence of North Koreans on a Russian building site was not unusual.
A report released by the North Korea Strategy centre released in 2015 named Russia as the largest employer of North Koreans; around 20,000-25,000 North Koreans are believed to work in Russia at any one time. Citing figures from Russia’s federal migration bureau, news site Meduza reported earlier this month that there are 30,000 North Koreans currently living in Russia, mostly in Moscow, St Petersburg or the country’s far east.
Meanwhile 15,000 workers were sent to the Middle East, and it’s estimated there’s about 8,000 North Koreans in both China and Africa. North Korean labour is prized because workers are diligent, efficient, discipline, and most importantly for businesses cheap. However, the practice has been condemned by human rights organisations who describe their labor as “human slavery”.
Europe also plays host to North Korea workers, and is a popular destination for North Korean workers because wages are higher, says Michael Glendinning, head of the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea. Evidence of North Korean workers in Europe have been located in both Malta and Poland, working in shipyards and garment factories.
The Leiden Center, based in the Netherlands, has identified around 50,000 North Koreans working in the EU.
James Hoare, from the Center of Korean Studies at Soas, and former diplomat, says the workers are generally ordinary citizens. Working abroad is seen as a bit of an adventure, and for many North Koreans, it’s their one chance to explore life outside their own country.
“It’s not unusual for people to volunteer their services,” says Hoare. “They’re used to terrible working conditions in their own country, they may as well go and work abroad in the same conditions.