Vice: North Korean Labor Camps

From the producer: 

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 named 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.


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  1. Vaga,
    Americans are not indocrinated just opinionated. The problem here is if anything we are given SO many conflicting thoughts, advice,viewpoints, and opinions that it is often hard to decide which onees to bloody well belive in!
    So very little in this world is black and white and we get to see all the various shades of grey just to make it confusing lol.
    The document if you had looked past the Americans (which most of us for sanity self preservation learn to do) is amazing! I do not want to hear :facts: any govt can white wash facts. However this docu. was far different and showed so so much more. It showed truth. It showed North Koreans in a foreign country working as we are not permitted (by their govt) to see much of the average person there its wonderful to actualy hear opinions from the people themselves that has not been sensored or staged. From what I saw thier life is hard. There is little in the way of comfort and the long duration of being away from home and family must be painful. However, as you stated that is part of being a guest worker in a foreign country and life itself can be rough. I can with all honesty say very few people in this world have it too easy.
    I also want to say I am very surprised at the camera comment. For us It isnt abnormal to see a person with a video camera or a phone doing and recording almsot anything! lol and it isnt that we “know” they are afraid we “know” that we are forbidden to interview them. Maybe Swedes can walk into NK and interview anyone you want off the streets but we Americans are not permitted to do so for whatever reason. There is the potential that we know of that they could be sent to prision camps and that is a great responibility. Would you go to say a womans shelter and start asking a woman about her husbands abuse all the while knowing he might very well see it and find her? Not to mentioned in all honesty they probably lied about why they were there.
    As for the bear comment. Yeah hes probably a city dweller who has only ever seen a bear on tv and would have never connected gun bear. I being a city dweller who camps quite a bit never give a thought about bears really when I go no matter how remote the place I am hiking in is.
    As for making a run comment. Thats a general expression used in this country to say “beat feet” or simply put.. left.
    As for the drunkeness thing yeahhhh you know I would totally not be suprised if they tried to interview Donald Trum in that manner. Then again I would not be surprised if Donald Trump had them quickly escotred to the street for it too lol.
    As for your experience here as a fellow traveler you should know that your country is not their country and the laws in every country are different and all places have good places and bad places to go to. You should know to research the places you travel to and not to go to them unless it is a dire need. Its common sense for any traveler. Stay safe learn about where you are going and when it doubt do not do it! lol
    As for joining the game plan with luck in the next few elections there is a movemnt here small but rapidly growing because of Bush and Obama that well need not get with the game plan but get OUT of the game. Every play date must end sometime right?
    With any luck there is a strong canidate who will be running that will be pulling us out of the world wide circle and concentrating on whats importatant. Returning our manufacture here and closing off many international ties and responibilites. I for one will be voting for him and a good many of my friends are contemplating it as well. It will be good not to be supporting other nations and closing our bases across the board abroad and being able to say sorry cant help too far I am sure you will manage without us. It will be good to get the UN out of here and off to Europe where I am sure it would be much better off. We have our own resources we just need to remeber that and get our chit together. Like oil..really? WTH?? We have vast supplies in our own country and need to tap them instead of buying it from another country. Hoepfully things willl change for us in the next few elections. Most of us are hoping for it anyways. Guess we will have to wait and see.

  2. Well, this so called documentary shows some interesting issues.

    Mostly that the really indoctrinated people are americans.

    There is no actual facts behind the camps he shows. These people are regular guestworkers, just like Philipine men work in Bahrain and mexicans in the states (well illegally then), but Vice dont do a docu about their living situation in the californian desert do they?

    The kim il sung camp was most probably a scientific place of some kind since it had this nice building which when it was running probably had good heat and water and so giving from the looks of it. Probably there were guestworkers from NK since Russia and NK has been allies for long time.

    And nowhere in the video there are guards or anything, you are very open with your camera and that freaks people out, even when you visit rural places here in Sweden. But in the american way since all you ever learned about the east countries is that people are afraid of talking to the camera because they will be sent to prison camps. I bet when you applied for the VISA to Russia youalready told them you where making these trips since they want full statement of your trip when you apply, I know, I travelled through Russia from the Finnish border to Mongolia in 2001.

    And the guy putting his gun in the car, well, heard about bears?

    And then he says they make a run to the Chinese border, howcome no-one stopped you with Kalaschikovs and put you in jail if you where that big a threat? When people show up with a camera anywhere in the world, the police stops them and ask for permits, why they are filming etc. so that part was also out of reality.

    The most funny part was when he passed the mill and shouted out that there was a NK flag. Get real, it was an old Soviet flag. Actually most people in Russia miss the Soviet Union since it was more stabile and most people had work. Ask them!!

    The only smart comment below is made by Anna Fuksova, what is actually the foundation of this so called documentary. It’s just a american guy travelleing in Russia saying fucking all the time and you can see in his face that he is really scared sometimes, not because he has the right to be scared, just the fact that he has heard so much from his own regime that indoctrinates americans to believe so much stuff about the rest of the world which isn’t true. The first questions you learn as a journalist is “who, when, where, why, how, what” and this guy doesn’t answer one of them.

    Ok, I am against countries that doesn’t follow human rights and both Russia and NK have a lot of stuff to work on.

    But look at the US.
    was there in 94 and 96. the first trip I was beaten up by a gang the second evening, spending the next two weeks cleaning wounds. people shot each other over crack, you have 3 million in prison, more then Soviet ever had, you have death penalty and invade other countries in aggresive war, which is forbidden in the Geneva convention.

    So Vice, and Americans, put some structure in your future makings and climb up on the gameplan and join reality.

  3. In relative terms, & from the outset, it seems these North Korean workers do have better working conditions than their counterparts in slave labour cams back home. Also, open the beer for the guy next time!

  4. Dangerous place to visit. The guys were wise to dumb-down their journalistic appearance, to appear non-professional.  

  5. I also wanna add that i rather spend resources and food to other nations in the world. I think there are far more starving people in Africa…

  6. @ Denbenenki:

    Dude, if the USA and many other nations in the world don’t want to trade with NK, that’s their good goddamn given right. Just like we don’t trade with Syria and many other nations in the world that consider the western nations as infidels and enemies. Allmost in all of these cases, they have the right arguments up their sleeve!

    For starters and maybe the most important one. NK doesn’t respect Human rights! They torture their own people for info, there is no democracy and no freedom of speech. The governement spends money on it’s army instead of giving pensions, healthcare and food to the people. They have the 3th biggest army in the world and are technically still at war! The NK gov. doesn’t prioritize on helping, educating and most importantly on feeding the people. The only reason people are dying in there is because of a divine despotic, not democraticaly chosen, emperor. Who rules the country like a medieval king.

    And now you start blaming the US for this?! What would you like to do? Start trading and giving stuff to the people that hate us and want to destroy western civilisation. To the people that squeezes their own people and pushes billions into making sattelites and nuclear weapons? To maybe start WWIII?!

    Take off your left-wing socialist, tree-hugging, hippie glasses. Stop blaming the USA for every problem in the world. The NK-govt. brought this on themselves and instead of giving up, making peace and helping their own people. They started giving them weapons and propaganda instead of food!

    If the people of NK could vote, they would sure have another system and another leader and leading party(ies). Coming with that less corruption and more transparancy on what is going on in there. And thus the govt. can be called down or voted away next time. A gov. like this would/is obliged to help the people, if not they would dissappear! NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND!!!

    Everything you just said is one of most insanely idiotic things i’ve ever heard. At no point, in your rambling incoherent responce, were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Nor did you ever capture the problems in this country as domestic. Everyone reading your comment is now dumber because of what you typed here. You disgusted me and I hope i never meet you in real life. May God have mercy on your soul.

  7. The USA has long been sanctioning the North Koreans; meddling into their lives, and—assisting in their deaths!

    The North Koreans, as a people, have more reason to distrust, hate, and blame the US than any USA-er can say about the North Korean Govt or people.

    I am interested in their country and people, that is why I watched this. But I am bothered by journalists or reporters who cannot resist saying bad things about the conditions or restrictions.

    I remind all of you—your Govt would also be on high alert if the NK were trying regularly undermine the country.

    Sure, they can come to the US and film, talk, walk around—no restrictions. What you all miss, is that many western countries are undermining NK at levels not publicized. And who can they then complain to? So when a reporter comes, they hope the reporter will report the outside interference is causing these people a grqave hardship—but look—they are positive—they celebrate—they are worthy people. All we get is the people are badgered.

    They send people to Siberia to earn money for their country. That is like when parents send their children out to work and bring the money back. In the USA, that might be bad parenting. In NK, that might be necessity.
    I thank the guys for traveling out to film this, but I am disappointed they forsook the professionalism to the task and submitted to the drun ken state. I expect Shane will also regret this in time as surely he knows even people living in the woods can smell the booze. As he would not take a drunken film crew to meet Donald Trump, neither should he venture to meet anyone less blessed in this world.

    From all that I have seen, including this film, I admire the North Korean people and have great respect.

    As a USA-er, I am humbly sorry for the despair my country has regularly bestowed upon them.

  8. great film, thanks

  9. That translator should’ve knocked that little drunk shit out!

  10. Loved it! You rock, Shane.

  11. i think im going to pay the fish a vist legand haha

  12. not bad documentary, but why the splitting into so many short parts? pointless

  13. With the instances of the North Korean government kidnapping people I would also want to take a shotgun if I went to visit.

  14. The Fish is the fuckn BOSS!!!  Another wild adventure as usual, Vice rules!!

  15. I know, let’s make every video start on FULL VOLUME.

  16. great doku. refreshingly honest also. didnt see any commersials though. but had some sound issues when starting a new part, had to go back and forth a little to make it work.

  17. Really insightful. Thank you.

    I wonder if you ever got tempted to tell them the reality of the situation?

  18. pure class from vice

  19. FFS broken into seven parts to get six advertisements in. Fuck it ! it’s not worth it, I made it through 3 ads.

  20. besides the bloody advert! great doco!, soo inspirational I wrote a song about it!

  21. No need to have a damn politically correct BBC approach to an f’d up country. If it’s shit, it’s shit. Deal with it.

  22. I’m not a prude but could do without the boozey intro and bad language…why the C word?? Just do your job…what a great gig and you are cheapening it.

  23. Very good documentary… i would like to know what that pipeline they were talking about was

  24. Totaly SHIT docu! I even would not call this crap documentary….what  kind of message you got out of it?

  25. Thumbs up for “The Fish” 😀

  26. Must say though, not impressed with their face blurring of the north Korean worker they met in part 4. They promised to blur his face, but essentially only blurred his hair and eyes. He has a distinctive mouth and jaw, and if he’s identified no doubt will suffer.
    Come on VICE, show some journalistic integrity and follow through on your promises when you make them.

    If you say you will blur a face, don’t just blur half of it.

    • At least the person they interviewed wasn’t really being critical or questioning the camps, but just being on camera and responding to questions might be acting out of line for all I know

    • oh come on they were blurring their faces in order to protect the lives of those poor deprived laborers

      • ….Of-course Roxyzz96. But John`s point is,their faces are half-blurred. They are easily identifiable. `The Fish` is good!  _Good work VICE_

  27. Great doc. I can tell you tho, I will NEVER drink Bacardi again for making me sit through their sh#t ad before each episode.

    Bacardi is horse piss!

  28. very good docu!  

  29. tried watching this but the stream kept freezeing up on me…parts 1 thru 6 are on youtube i suggest watching it there