Page last updated at 21:45 GMT, Wednesday, 26 August 2009 22:45 UK

N Koreans toiling in Russia's timber camps

Simon Ostrovsky has travelled to remote far eastern Russia and obtained rare footage of North Koreans who are working there as labourers under an agreement between their secretive Stalinist state and a company run by British businessmen.

Watch Simon Ostrovsky's film

To the West, North Korea is a pariah state, best known for its secrecy, famines, belligerent politics and its leader's brutality.

At home, North Koreans live under total government control and the watchful eye of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.

But in the Amur region of Russia, almost 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from the border, North Korea has created a home away from home at a series of remote logging camps in which nearly 1,500 workers are employed.

I travelled to one of the camps deep in the forest. A giant monument bearing the words "Our greatest leader Kim Il-sung lives with us forever" stood in the middle.

One of the buildings had a sign which read "Laboratory of Kim Il-sung's Theory" a commonly used slogan found on North Korean administration blocks. The camp even had its own theatre.

Further into the forest we found a group of North Koreans hard at work. They lived in a mobile wagon, decorated with portraits of the North Korean leaders.

Although reluctant to speak, one told me that he earned the equivalent of $200 per month. Another said that he earned $1 for each truck he loaded and that he could load up to nine per day, but he had not been paid since May.

Production targets

North Korean labourers
The North Koreans work long hours in the forests

To try to find out who employed the North Koreans I travelled to Tynda, where the headquarters of the region's logging operations are based.

I met Sergey Sarnavsky, the director of a small local timber firm which has a contract with Association No 2, a state-owned North Korean organisation.

"The Koreans work year round with two days off per year," he told me. "All the other days are working days no matter what the weather conditions, they always work.

"The Koreans work for the government and their communist party, they've got production targets," he said. "If the quota is filled then everything is ok. If it is not fulfilled, well then they've got their Communist Party of North Korea, and everybody gets punished from the managers down to the worker who didn't fulfil the quota."


North Korean labourers
The logs cause injuries. The drivers drop logs and people get killed. Because people are so cold, they can't avoid falling trees and are killed.
Former labourer

Many North Korean labourers have tried to escape the camps. Over the last two decades thousands have abandoned their work and now live in constant fear of arrest and deportation to North Korea.

Branded enemies of the people by their homeland they are wanted by Russian police and their own country's security services.

One worker, who ran away in the 1990s and had been given refuge by a Russian family, told me about life working in the camps, where winter temperatures regularly drop to 30C below zero:

"I was working endless hours. Twelve hours is normal in North Korea, but working 12 hours at the camps is very hard. In winter it's very cold... It's hard to work on an empty stomach. But the living conditions were the worst part.

"The logs cause injuries. The drivers drop logs and people get killed. Because people are so cold, they can't avoid falling trees and are killed."

'Treated as traitors'

Svetlana Gannushkina
Svetlana Gannushkina helps former loggers who escaped from the camps

Russian human rights organisations are working with North Korean defectors. They say that often, after months of work, the labourers are underpaid and sometimes not paid at all.

Svetlana Gannushkina's organisation is assisting some two dozen former loggers who escaped before 2001 and are now living in hiding. I asked her what would happen if they were handed over to the North Korean authorities.

"They can expect terrible suffering, they can expect a cruel death," she said. "We know of cases when people in the moment of their detention have simply, killed themselves. These people and their families become pariahs in their own country. They are treated as traitors."

Commercial benefits

So who benefits commercially now from North Korean labour in Russia's Far East?

The North Korean state, which provides the labour through Association No 2, take 35% of the proceeds from their logging operations in Russia - approximately $7m per year.

The remainder goes to a firm called Tynda Les, who are owned by the Russian Timber Group - the largest logging firm in the region with around 1,400 North Koreans working on its sites.

The Russian Timber Group was founded in 2004 by British businessman, Peter Hambro and a Russian business partner. Together they bought up a number of forestry rights across Russia covering an area roughly the size of Belgium.

I asked Russian Timber Group's CEO, Peter Hambro's son Leo, if they had any control over the loggers' welfare.

He told me that the Russian Timber Group makes sure that the company which provides the workers complies with the Russian labour code and that they get regularly inspected. He also said that Russian Timber Group had no involvement in how much the workers are paid.

"There is always going to be criticism... of any involvement with North Korea, especially as its been flagged by people like President Obama as an axis of evil," he told me.

"It is not in our interest - in our public relations interest - to continue our involvement with the North Korean workers. But at the moment our product sells... and we are happy to continue our involvement because they are workers who are prepared to work while there is timber to be sold at good values."

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