Sneaking into North Korea's Secret Russian Labor Camp
By Shane Smith, Photos by Jason Mojica
This guy menacingly brandished a railroad spike at Shane until his Russian mobster driver “Billy the Fish” grabbed it out of his hands and asked, “This your lights-out switch?”
Shortly after I arrived in Siberia, our British editor, Andy Capper, texted me: “You’ll love Siberia. Everything is so close and the people are so nice.” He was of course being facetious (or British: same thing) because everything is 18 hours by train and the people are very mean indeed. Some might start out nice, but after the vodka starts flowing—which is always—so does the malevolence. There are exceptions to the cranky-Russian rule, but they’re very few and very far between. One such exception was a lovely, lovely man called Billy the Fish—not his real name, of course. His nickname was the Fish, and I added the “Billy” in because I was drunk.
Billy was a local mafia type from a remote Siberian town that had no police and little regulation, save him and his boys. This would prove to be literally lifesaving, because we were after a very dangerous quarry in the middle of nowhere—North Korean slaves—who don’t want anyone to know they are actually there. Billy, clearly game for some hijinks, agreed to take us into the forest to find them.
At the first camp we found, the North Korean guards threatened us and tried to throw us out. Billy the Fish laughed—a great gold-toothed guffaw—and then smiled. “This is Russia,” he growled, eyes glinting. Motioning to the vast expanses around him, he declared, “This is mine.” Then to our camera crew, “Keep shooting. They can do nothing.” So we did.
Later, when we were deep in the forest, we came upon cadres of North Korean workers. A group of them approached and quickly surrounded our truck. One of them was swinging an iron bar, looking like he was going to bash our imperialist brains in. Billy took it from him, looked at it, and remarked calmly, “This your lights-out switch?” Sniff. “You’re going to need more than that.” He smiled and chucked it into the forest.
Later, we had lunch by an old woodpile—Spam, hard bread, paprika chips, vodka, beer, and, for dessert, vodka with juice. Billy pulled out some old shotguns, and we released some built-up tension by shooting at our empty beer bottles. It was like being 15 again, naughty boys in the forest. When we came around the corner there were the North Koreans, waiting for us, but cowed and much less aggressive. “Did you know they were there?” I asked Billy. “Of course.” Sniff. “Where else would they be?” Classic Billy.
After an afternoon of playing cat and mouse with North Korean slaves, Billy took us to a freezing cold Siberian river for a swim to “clean it up,” then more vodka to “warm it up,” and then home to his family for the only good meal we ate in Russia. After eating, the Fish family took us to the bar (read: room with lights) for a night of boozing and drunken hugging with hard men whose nicknames included Stalin, Bear Killer, and, my favorite, plain old Killer. Tears, more vodka, giving of cheap presents, and finally the two-day train ride back to “civilization.”
But the North Koreans were waiting for us on the train… And so began the worst 48 hours of my life, which ended with the FSB (the modern version of the KGB), the local militia, plainclothes police, and assorted thugs removing us from the train and placing us into custody. Finding myself wishing for Billy and his ability to effortlessly sort things out, I texted him that the FSB had detained us. He replied, “Of course they have. Just leave.” So we took off, racing across Siberia to the Chinese border (Billy told us about the smugglers’ route) and finally… to freedom.
A North Korean performs a little routine maintenance on a Russian truck in the heart of the labor camp.
Shane with the Russian transit cop who saved him from a bunch of drunken hooligans on the Trans-Siberian Express.
The sawmill in Dipkun.
Billy the Fish shows off his shotgun.
Everyone said that the bridge leading into the logging camp had burned down, and we’d have to ford the river, but apparently a local cop built this replacement bridge so he could loot scrap metal from the North Koreans.
All of this lumber piled in the mud is known as Siberian Larch, which is primarily used to make that shitty particleboard furniture you’ve got all over your house.