Russia becomes more dangerous for North Korean escapees
2024-07-18 07:13:06

This <strong></strong>November 2015 file photo shows North Korean laborers in Vladivostok, Russia. One of the three countries bordering North Korea, Russia has become more dangerous for North Korean escapees amid Putin's war in Ukraine and growing cooperation with the Kim regime, experts say. Korea Times photo by Bae Woo-han

This November 2015 file photo shows North Korean laborers in Vladivostok, Russia. One of the three countries bordering North Korea, Russia has become more dangerous for North Korean escapees amid Putin's war in Ukraine and growing cooperation with the Kim regime, experts say. Korea Times photo by Bae Woo-han

Stronger Moscow-Pyongyang ties make route for freedom-seekers more perilous: expertsBy Jung Min-ho

The refugee policies of Russia, one of the three countries bordering North Korea, along with China and South Korea, have never been sympathetic to North Korean escapees.

Yet compared with the U.N. refugee agency and human rights activists based in China, those in Russia operated more normally without extreme state repression. But this may no longer be the case after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

As Moscow strengthens relations with Pyongyang as part of its effort to back up the Russian forces on the battlefield, concerning signs are emerging that the route to freedom for North Korean freedom-seekers through Russia has become more perilous, according to experts.

“I was told by people in Russia that things have become far more dangerous since the war,” Kim Dong-jae (not his real name), a former North Korean construction worker in Russia, told The Korea Times. “When I was in Russia for several years before my escape in 2022, the U.N. refugee agency had been functioning properly. After sending signals for help to the agency, I was able to receive its support and protection.”

But ever since, Kim said he heard that “the process of reaching the agency” has become far more challenging as Russian and North Korean authorities “collaborate more closely” in taking measures to catch those attempting to flee.

Looking back, he said the timing was nerve-racking. “The war broke out while I was waiting in Russia to be sent to South Korea. I was prepared for the worst,” he noted.

According to data from the U.N. refugee agency, there were 31 North Koreans recognized as refugees in Russia in 2023, the lowest figure in more than 10 years. The number has steadily decreased since 2016, when 79 North Koreans were recognized as refugees and 11 others as asylum-seekers. Experts said it is expected to continue to decline as long as the Russian war keeps Moscow and Pyongyang close.

“It is likely that the Kremlin agreed to cooperate with North Korea on handling the issue of North Korean escapees in Russia during recent meetings between the two sides,” said Cho Han-bum, a senior analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), a state-funded think tank.

Cho said he was also told by his sources in Russia that monitoring of North Korean workers in Russia has be increased over the past two years.

“Before the war, North Korean workers who wanted to escape could do so by contacting the rights activists who could help them reach the U.N. agency in Moscow. Once they manage to get there, they could receive support from the South Korean Embassy,” he said. “Now, it seems like such North Koreans can no longer find help from activists as Russian authorities appear to have stepped up efforts to suppress such rescue efforts.”

According to a report published by the KINU in 2017, 30,000 North Koreans were estimated to be working in Russia. Experts said the number will likely continue to swell as Russia views North Korea as a key partner not just for the Ukraine war but also for its reconstruction efforts after the end of the conflict.

Fences are installed along a hill on the North Korea border with Russia and China, seen from Fangchuan, Jilin province, China, in this Sept. 11, 2023, file photo. AP-Yonhap

Fences are installed along a hill on the North Korea border with Russia and China, seen from Fangchuan, Jilin province, China, in this Sept. 11, 2023, file photo. AP-Yonhap

Crossing North Korea-Russia border is ‘full of risks’

North Korean refugees in Russia fall under two categories: those initially sent by the regime in Pyongyang to earn hard currency and those who cross the border on their own.

A vast majority of North Korean refugees in Russia belong to the first group, as few choose to cross the North Korea-Russia border on foot. Many would rather take the China route. Experts said there are good reasons for their reluctance.

“North Koreans know the Russia border area is heavily mined as there are few people living near there on both sides, unlike its China border. Many fear that they might end up being killed by one of those landmines,” Kim said. “Moreover, that border is much shorter (about 18 kilometers), and it is covered with surveillance cameras. With few people around the region, the escapee could be spotted easily. The harsh weather is another reason for some. But it is not a critical one as they can choose to cross the border during summer.”

A lack of established networks through which they can seek help is another factor.

“Unlike China, where North Korean escapees can easily find brokers who can take them to third countries such as Thailand en route to their eventual destination of South Korea, it is much more difficult for them to find such brokers in Russia,” Cho said. “With the Kremlin stepping up efforts to deter them from helping the escapees, it must be even more challenging now.”

(作者:汽车配件)