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Siberia (VICE.COM) -- Kim Jong Il, the absolute dictator of North Korea, made a very rare trip outside the protection of his own borders this past August, albeit on a heavily armored private train. The reason for the trip was a meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to talk about forming deeper trade and labor alliances between the two countries. This would all seem quite normal and boring if it weren't for the fact that a) nothing is ever normal when it comes to North Korea and, b) Vice happened to also be in the Amur region at the exact same time as Kim Jong Il. But we were there to track down a different kind of North Korean in Siberia: slaves.
We had heard through freelance journalist Simon Ostrovsky that North Korea was outsourcing its labor force to work in Siberia as a way to generate much needed hard currency for Kim Jong Il's cash-strapped regime. He reported that camps built to actually look like miniature North Korean villages peppered the remote regions of Russia's Far East and Siberia. He also reported on the lengthy terms of their labor "contracts" and insanely harsh working conditions. So we sent a Vice crew along with Simon to see if we could find some of these camps and talk to some of the North Koreans working there.
Most of the camps are very inaccessible so we spent a lot of time on the Trans-Siberian railway to get to the small towns we would use as bases for excursions deep into the forest, looking for work crews. When we finally found the North Korean loggers, their stories were astounding: 10-year labor requirements, living and working out in the bush, Dickensian working conditions, squalid living quarters, inedible food and the majority of their wages garnished and sent back to North Korea to "help the quality of life there improve."
It was hard to believe that labor camps of this sort still exist in Siberia in 2011, but we saw them with our own eyes. Most of the workers were over 40, meaning that they likely had families back in the home country. So if they tried to escape (many still do) the North Korean government could punish them by sending them to concentration camps or enslaving their families in other work camps.
When we found out that Kim Jong Il was in the same region making deals for even more of these types of labor arrangements we knew that we had to show what was going on: a dictator trying to sell more of his people, to make more money, to build more nuclear weapons, that he can use to blackmail the West into giving North Korea more aid, thus enabling him to maintain his regime. And this more than anything exemplifies the absurdity of the modern condition. Or at least the bull goose lunacy that is going on in Russia's Far East.