Russian authorities have reportedly arrested, tried and repatriated a North Korean worker who was preparing to defect from a labour camp in the Russian Far East, with human rights activists suggesting Moscow has started to cooperate with Pyongyang in its crackdown on defectors.
The worker – identified as 29-year-old Jun Kyung-chul – had served as a private in the North Korean People’s Army before being sent to work in Russia about one year ago, the Daily NK, a Seoul-based dissident news site, reported. Unhappy at the gruelling work conditions, he had made plans to defect to South Korea before being caught.
The reports claim he had been receiving assistance in his bid for freedom, but disappeared in early November.
An unnamed source told the Daily NK that North Korean authorities requested the assistance of Russia in detaining Mr Jun, who was put on trial in the city of Vladivostok on November 7, although the charges he faced have not been verified. Russia and North Korea have agreed in the past to extradite anyone found guilty of a crime in each other’s territory.
Mr Jun was convicted, handed over to the custody of representatives of the Pyongyang government and transferred over the border to North Korea the same day.
In numbers | North Korean defectors
Human rights activists say the speed with which the investigators acted and the Russian authorities’ apparent disregard for Mr Jun’s likely fate should be cause for concern.
“If other defectors’ cases are anything to go by, it is very likely that he and all his extended family will have been sent to a political prison camp”, said Ken Kato, director of the Japan branch of Human Rights in Asia.
“This is a humiliation for North Korea so they will treat him harshly”, he said. “The few people who have survived the North’s political prison system say that 30 per cent die within the first three months of their incarceration. The remainder are worked to death."
Mr Kato also expressed concern at Moscow’s apparent collusion with the North as other defectors have in the past been able to transit Russia and reach safety in a third country.
In 2014, it was reported that the North Korean banker charged with handling Kim Jong-un’s personal slush fund had defected to South Korea via Russia with around $5 million of the dictator’s cash.
There are reports that as many as 50,000 North Koreans are working in slave-like conditions in mines, factories and logging camps in Siberia, with their wages paid directly to the government in Pyongyang.
“Russia is supporting North Korea in order to cause problems for the United States, with these workers’ wages going directly to Pyongyang where they are used for their weapons programmes or to prop up the regime”, said Kato. “It’s appalling that a country that not too long ago described itself as the motherland of all workers is now treating people like slaves and condemning them to death by sending them back to North Korea for geo-political gain."