MOSCOW, Russia — A stocky 39-year-old Korean man in a white sweater with a snowflake pattern bustled around the kitchen, adding vinegar to a seaweed salad and spices to a pot of soup. He bowed and shook hands with everyone who entered, smiling and repeating “Hello!” and “Thank you!” in broken Russian.
It was the last night in Moscow for “Kim” — a pseudonym he uses to avoid retaliation against the relatives he left behind in North Korea — and the end of a saga that began during his native country’s great famine in the 1990s in which millions of his compatriots starved to death. Kim fled not once but twice. The first time he tried to defect, he made it to China, but was sent to one of Kim Jong Un’s infamous labor camps. The typical sentence for a defector was 10 years, essentially a death sentence, given that it meant 18 hours of hard labor a day, on three spoonfuls of rice each meal. But he managed to escape, this time to Russia, where his life became a constant struggle to avoid again being deported, to an almost certain death.
After living on the margins of legality in Russia for three years, always at risk of being captured by North Korean agents or handed over by local authorities, Kim finally flew to safety that night from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport to the United States, where he would enjoy the political asylum he was never granted by Russia.
But there are many other North Koreans in Russia, and few are likely to be as lucky as Kim. As political and economic ties have improved in recent years between Moscow and Pyongyang, the two neighbors have signed treaties promising to repatriate criminals and all those “who have illegally entered and are illegally located” in each other’s countries. Days before Kim’s departure, Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced two out of the three agreements to Parliament for ratification.
Russia’s signing of these treaties shows the “beginnings of a substantive commitment to developing ties with the North,” according to Anthony Rinna, an analyst on Russian foreign policy for the Sino-NK research group in Seoul.
“If Russia can help stop the defections of North Koreans on its territory, then it can possibly help prop up the regime and preserve stability in North Korea, particularly as the risk of deportation makes China less attractive, while at the same time life in South Korea is not the bed of roses so many imagine it to be,” Rinna said. “It mitigates the risk that Russia may somehow become a new destination for defectors, particularly as North Korea-Russia economic ties continue to grow.”
Although few Russians are likely to flee to the Hermit Kingdom, these agreements could be a death warrant for North Korean defectors in Russia. The respected refugee group Civic Assistance says dozens if not hundreds of North Koreans are living illegally in villages in Siberia and the Far East, putting Russia behind only China and South Korea as a destination for them. Defections from North Korea are reportedly again on the rise, with the majority of escapees saying living conditions have deteriorated under Kim Jong Un. North Koreans who are forcibly repatriated commonly suffer torture, arbitrary detention, summary execution, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.
Finding refuge in Russia is already a long shot: It gave two out of 211 North Korean applicants permanent asylum between 2004 and 2014, according to Civic Assistance. An additional 90 received temporary asylum out of 170 who applied, but this lasts for only one year.
“All our agreements with North Korea are a crime against people who come to us for help, and I’m ashamed that our country, like in Soviet times, will hand people over for torture and death,” said Civic Assistance head Svetlana Gannushkina. Defectors are only a small subset of the 10,000 North Koreans estimated by the United Nations to be living in Russia, most of whom were sent by North Korea to toil in harsh Siberian logging camps, farms, and construction companies under the gaze of their own minders in “slave-like conditions,” according to the U.N. (Others put the number higher, saying tens of thousands of migrants are part of state labor programs at any given time, some of whom try to stay after their term ends.)
The labor program is a seven-decade-old practice, a vestige of the close Cold War alliance between the Soviet Union and North Korea that was never entirely extinguished. After a cooling in relations in the 1990s, Russia and North Korea have intensified their cooperation more recently, especially after Kim Jong Un sent his second-in-command to meet Putin at the Sochi Olympics in February 2014.
That spring the two countries signed an agreement to raise bilateral trade from $112 million to $1 billion by 2020 and to use North Korean labor at agricultural and timber enterprises in the Amur region in Russia’s far east. A $340 million joint venture has built a new railway from the Russian border to the North Korean port of Rajin. There are hopes of integrating the North Korean rail system with the Trans-Siberian and even trying to build a gas pipeline through to South Korea, though the latter is something of a pipe dream, given the long-running hostility across the demilitarized zone that separates the Korean peninsula. Bolstered by economic ties and historical affinity, North Korea was one of only a handful of countries to support Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
For North Koreans fleeing their country’s brutal repression and starvation, this closeness is a death knell. Gannushkina is haunted by the fate of another North Korean refugee, Ryu En Nam, whom Civic Assistance volunteers tried to help in 2008. He was handed over to North Korean representatives near the border. Later, volunteers learned that he had been tortured to death by being roped to the back of a moving train.
Others have narrowly avoided a similar end. Gannushkina recounted the story of a defector named Jung, who lived illegally for seven years in a village in the Orenberg region, built himself a home, married a Russian woman and had a child. In 2005, he appealed for asylum, but was abducted and taken to Vladivostok by Russian agents when he went to the federal migration service office in Moscow. He was handed over to the North Korean Embassy. Eventually he escaped from the guards at a North Korean construction company in the Russian far east and flew to the safety of a Western country.
“All the stories I know from North Koreans are incredible. You could make films,” Gannushkina said. “Journalists don’t believe them. There are too many coincidences, but you have to understand that the only survivors are the ones for whom those coincidences lined up.”
Kim’s story is one of heroic daring and miraculous survival. He was born to a fisherman’s family, but both his parents died by the time he was 12. He was adopted into another family, but the great famine of the mid-1990s was taking hold. His family soon stopped receiving its monthly rice ration. Kim remembered eating the seed meal left over from the harvest of fields where grain was grown to feed prisoners, but eventually there wasn’t enough to sustain six children. The head of the family sent him to an orphanage, telling him that from now on his fate was in his own hands.
Kim lived and studied there until he graduated from high school and was put out on the street. He said he had a choice: Stay and starve to death, or flee across the river to China.
“I knew it was a country where I wouldn’t die from hunger, a country where there is rice, a country where people don’t die on the street,” Kim said.
Though he worked in China for about eight years, he couldn’t get legal status there since it isn’t a party to the U.N. Convention on Refugees. He decided to flee to Russia, having heard that he could get asylum there, but plotted his route with a Soviet-era map. He was caught on the border between China and Kazakhstan and sent back to North Korea, where he was interned in a labor camp.
Eventually, he and some 30 others in his group decided to make a break for it when they were led out for their daily break to relieve themselves in the bushes. One morning, as only one guard was escorting them, they ran in different directions and climbed the two barbed-wire fences. He met up with two other prisoners and hid with friends in a nearby village. The woman who was hiding them said the other escaped prisoners had been caught and that she had heard the gunshots of their executions.
After two weeks in hiding, the three fled to China over the river, then frozen, that serves as the international border. He went back to doing odd jobs and construction work in China, but had the same problem with legalization as before. In 2013, he fled to Russia, this time taking the right route, crossing the Amur River near Blagoveshchensk.
He ran into a border guard patrol and turned himself in, trying to explain that he wanted to apply for asylum. Instead, they arrested him. After four months in pretrial detention, a judge fined him $165 for illegally crossing the border and then waived the fine. A Civic Assistance lawyer in Blagoveshchensk, Lyubov Tataretz, noticed North Koreans waiting outside the hearing. Fearing they would detain Kim, she said she persuaded the bailiffs to take him back into custody on the pretext of needing him to sign documents. Then she spirited him away to her country home, where she hid him until he could be transported to Moscow. In the capital, Kim worked at a Korean restaurant and tried to obtain asylum. He was repeatedly refused on the grounds that he “couldn’t convincingly prove that if he was returned to his motherland he would be shot.” After four tries, Kim was finally granted temporary year-long asylum in May 2016.
Unsure of his future here, Civic Assistance was at the same time in talks to try to persuade a Western country to take him in. The International Organization for Migration helped him obtain asylum in the United States.
But once the three treaties between Russia and North Korea are rubber-stamped by Russia’s compliant Parliament as expected, Koreans will likely be deported before they can receive asylum, Gannushkina said. Organizations such as Civic Assistance, Human Rights Watch, and Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights group, have condemned the treaties. Many have argued that they violate Russia’s recognition of the 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. But such groups are increasingly marginalized in Russia, and both Civic Assistance and Memorial have been declared “foreign agents,” a classification synonymous with “spy” for many Russians that subjects organizations to onerous audits.
When I met Kim, he was flying to the United States to begin his new life, at a time when the highest office in the country is about to be occupied by a man known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Civic Assistance activists said Kim cried while watching the U.S. election results on television, afraid Donald Trump’s win would end his hopes of asylum.
Speaking to him, I wondered if he would ever again feel truly at home. He said he still misses his native country, even though it considers him a traitor, and hopes to go back someday.
“I’m a Korean. I grew up there. My brother, sister, mom, and dad are all there,” Kim said.
But he may not ever return, and perhaps he’s lucky. Other North Koreans will likely be going back against their will, repatriated by the Russian authorities.
North Korea has labeled other defectors “human scum” and threatened to “physically remove” those who slander their homeland. Moscow has made no such statements, but its repatriation agreements put it on the same side as Pyongyang. At the very least it is indifferent to those, like Kim, who escape in hopes of a new life.
Photo Credit: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images