9 North Koreans in Russia defect to South Korea
Nine workers dispatched by North Korea to Russia defected to South Korea sometime between November and December last year, according to multiple sources on Tuesday.
The North Korean workers not only struggled with a shortage of work due to tightened international sanctions against Pyongyang, but were also said to have been concerned about the possibility of being deployed to work on reconstruction projects in the Russian-occupied Donbas region of Ukraine, sources familiar with the situation told the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity.
The nine workers arrived safely in South Korea and are currently attending classes at the Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees — also known as Hanawon — after being questioned by the National Intelligence Service.
One source told the JoongAng Ilbo that some of the recent North Korean arrivals expressed their desire to escape Russia even before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Two out of the nine workers alerted South Korean civic groups that they wanted to defect in September 2021, and they were able to escape to the South in early November last year with assistance from these groups,” the source said.
“The two workers took shelter in a safe house in an undisclosed location in Russia and started moving after they were registered under the temporary protection program of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Moscow,” where they arrived in September, according to the source.
Most of the North Koreans who defected to the South late last year were sent to work at Russian logging and construction sites, with some technically still enlisted as soldiers in the Korean People’s Army at the time they were dispatched to Russia.
“Some of the workers were conscripted soldiers who were sent abroad to earn hard foreign currency during their mandatory military service period,” another source told the JoongAng Ilbo, adding that their enlisted status and involuntary nature of their work likely strengthened their case before the UNHCR.
The number of North Korean defectors who have successfully reached South Korea has plunged in the past three years since Pyongyang closed its borders at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in China in January 2020.
But even as the flow of defectors from the North has dried up, North Korean workers posted abroad by the regime have continued to defect.
According to one JoongAng Ilbo source, there are approximately 20 former Russia-based North Korean construction workers among current residents of Hanawon.
Labor exports formerly constituted one of the main means by which North Korea earned foreign currency, with the regime dispatching approximately 100,000 workers to overseas projects before 2017.
The workers earned around $500 million annually for Pyongyang before the United Nations Security Council forbade the regime from sending workers overseas in a 2017 resolution.
Under the ban, all United Nations member states were required to repatriate all North Korean workers by December 2019.
But the North refused to allow the repatriation of its own workers after closing its borders to prevent Covid-19 from spreading into its territory.
North Korean workers stranded in Russia by their country’s entry restrictions flew under the radar of international sanctions by continuing to work at small construction sites and farms, according to local sources.
But concerns grew among North Korea workers in Russia that they could be sent to the war-torn Donbas region of Ukraine, especially after the North recognized both the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic in July, prior to their illegal annexation by Moscow.
Russia’s ambassador to Pyongyang, Aleksandr Matsegora, also hinted in an interview last year that North Korean workers could be employed to rebuild Russian-occupied Donbas.
“Highly qualified, hardworking, and ready to work in the most difficult conditions, Korean builders will be an asset in the serious task of restoring social, infrastructural and industrial facilities destroyed by the retreating Ukronazis,” Matsegora told the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia on July 19, using a Kremlin term connecting the Ukrainian government with Nazism.
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]