Primorye Triangle: Human Trafficking into Russia’s Far East

Randall Rowe


Development of Russia’s Far East, namely its principal city Vladivostok, has been named a main priority of Vladimir Putin’s government. A special ministry (Минвостокразвития) within the government has been tasked with overseeing this expansion and economic development. The New York Times (NYT) ran a story on July 14, 2016 likening this effort to the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862, with a headline full of bravado exclaiming, “Russia Looks to Populate Its Far East. Wimps Need Not Apply.” While the NYT may be romanticizing this effort through the story of a Cossack (photo from NYT is on the right) who is taking advantage of the government incentives to develop the eastern reaches of the country, nothing is said about human labor trafficking as a result of this effort. The article aptly points out problems of cronyism and national anxiety of Chinese expansion, however it fails to mention that forced labor practices are also at the crux of Russian development of its Far East. In order to fully unpack the international dynamics of this effort, one must consider the worsening humanitarian situation in North Korea, the growing global influence of China, and Russia’s government-sanctioned eastern expansion.

Primorsky Krai (Maritime Territory), Russia’s Far East

UN Report on North Korea

On October 28, 2015, about eight and a half months before the NYT article, Marsuki Darusman, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, delivered a report to the UN General Assembly in which he warned the international community about the North Korean regime’s profit from forced labor as a new source of income for the country, which is currently desperate for foreign currency. The political situation as a result of Kim Jong-un’s repressive, autocratic regime is forcing many to seek alternative methods of leaving the country, both for work and political freedoms. Predictably, the North Korean government highly regulates the migration of its citizens both within and outside of its borders. Section C.30 of the report aptly highlights the financial gain for “brokers” who are hired to assist North Koreans out of the country, often times to China and the Russian Federation, noting that “[i]n past years, a large number of brokers, many of them operating mainly for financial gain, have assisted citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to cross the border. The fees charged by brokers have reportedly increased as movement across the border has become more difficult.” More pertinent to this contextualization, section C.34 mentions that “tens of thousands of workers have reportedly been contracted by the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to work in foreign companies in China, the Russian Federation and other countries, mostly in construction and other manual jobs.” There are many recipient countries of North Korean workers, but none more prolific than China and Russia. This is due in part to North Korea’s need for economic stimulus, because of its international isolation and a particularly bad drought in 2015, in correlation with Russia’s need for labor to drive its eastern expansion project in response to China’s growing influence globally and locally on Russia’s south-eastern border.

Russian Anxiety Towards the Chinese

Chapter 3 out of the book Chinese Migrants in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europeauthored by Victor Larin, examines the attitudes and resulting policies around Chinese migration into Russia’s Far East. This tension is due to the perceived (and sometimes real) threats, “such as “ethnic” and economic aggression, political pressure and criminal activity” (75). Larin goes on to note that, “despite official statements from both the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation that border disputes between China and Russia have been resolved, many local residents still fear that China will annex the Russia Far East in the future” (75). Russian fear, or sometimes fascination, with Chinese migration into the Far East has preoccupied the public consciousness both in official policies and popular culture. For example, the latter may be found throughout Vladimir Sorokin’s novel, Day of the Oprichnik, which imagines a reestablished Russian empire that is heavily under the financial and cultural influence of the Chinese. The former, however, is exercised in the contemporary policy of offering Russian citizen’s a fire sale of property in the Russian Far East in order to combat the feared Chinese invasion.

Kremlin-Sanctioned Eastward Expansion

According to the NYT’s article, “the Kremlin… has thrown its weight behind the program, set in motion this summer with a blitz of publicity on state news media presenting the Far East as an El Dorado of opportunity.” With the Kremlin actively encouraging Russians to settle the Far East, more and more people are coming to the region and with them the demand for development in and around Vladivostok is rising. In order to meet this demand, workers are needed. The Russian Federation is also infamously facing its own population crisis. At the moment, Russia doesn’t have an adequate workforce in its more populated areas, let alone its less populated eastern regions. The North Korean regime is eager to meet this demand for labor with its own citizens. Through a program of hyper-regulation, the North Korean regime allows for the contracting of its citizens to Russian companies engaged in construction projects in the Far East. The UN report mentioned earlier in this post also notes that, “those workers reportedly live in poor conditions, are subject to lengthy working hours and oversight and limitations on their movement. They reportedly receive only a fraction of their pay, as the hiring companies pay the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea directly.” Their labor is being exploited by foreign companies with the blessing of the ruling regime in Pyongyang.


The United States’ 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report (“TIP Report”), reminds us that “to target prevention measures more precisely, governments and civil society should encourage and fund research that identifies populations vulnerable to human trafficking, including a more comprehensive understanding of root causes that are specific to states, communities, and cultural contexts” (US TIP 10). The UN report is eye-opening for many reasons, but chief among them is the participation by the North Korean regime in blatant human trafficking to companies in the Russian Federation. However, heeding the reminder from the TIP Report, I have triangulated the situation to better understand its causes and possible solutions and to combat the exploitation of North Korean citizens. Russian fears of Chinese expansion into the Far East have triggered development efforts, which in turn have illuminated a need for labor. This need is eagerly answered by Kim Jong-un et al. in an effort to combat their own financial struggles in North Korea. The “Primorye Triangle” practice stands outside the commonly accepted notion of human trafficking as being perpetrated by organized criminal networks, due to the fact that it is carried out through comparatively “legitimate” channels, in which the primary actors are the state and companies acting in the interest of the state. This is precisely why examples of human trafficking must be investigated in the proper historical, social and cultural context in which they are perpetrated; so that better, viable solutions may be developed and effectively deployed on the very ground where the injustices are taking place.

Sources not hyperlinked

Chang, Felix B. and Sunnie T. Rucker-Chang. Chinese Migrants in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Milton Park: Abingdon, Oxon, 2012. Print.

Randall Rowe is a Ph.D. student at The Ohio State University in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures. He has earned a B.A from Michigan State University and an M.A. from New York University. His research interests include Cultural studies, Migrations and Diaspora studies, and Russian media.


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