Growing danger for North Korean escapees in Russia

Russia’s treatment of North Korean escapees may have worsened post-2022 due to increased state repression. Moscow’s alliance with Pyongyang raises concerns, making the journey for defectors riskier through Russia.

Before 2022, Russia’s treatment of North Korean escapees under its refugee policies was typically less sympathetic compared to China and South Korea, the other two neighbouring countries of North Korea. However, while the UN refugee agency and human rights activists in China faced significant state repression, those in Russia operated with relatively fewer obstacles. Yet, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, this dynamic may have changed, potentially subjecting refugee agencies and activists in Russia to increased state repression.

Experts suggest that as Moscow deepens its ties with Pyongyang to support Russian forces on the battlefield, there are worrying indications that the path to freedom for North Korean defectors through Russia has become increasingly dangerous.

In 2023, according to the UN refugee agency’s data, only 31 North Koreans were officially recognized as refugees in Russia, marking the lowest figure in over a decade. This number has been consistently decreasing since 2016 when 79 North Koreans were granted refugee status and 11 others were considered asylum-seekers. Experts anticipate that this downward trend will persist as long as the Russian alliance with Pyongyang remains strong due to the ongoing war.
In a report released by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) in 2017, it was estimated that approximately 30,000 North Koreans were working in Russia. Experts predict that this number is likely to increase further as Russia sees North Korea not only as a crucial ally in the Ukraine conflict but also as a significant partner for post-conflict reconstruction efforts.
The North Korean refugees in Russia can be categorized into two groups: those sent by the Pyongyang regime to earn hard currency and those who independently cross the border. The majority of North Korean refugees in Russia fall into the first category, as few opt to traverse the North Korea-Russia border on foot. Instead, many prefer to take the route through China. Experts suggest there are compelling reasons for their hesitancy to cross directly into Russia.