20 years under Putin: a timeline

In early September of this year, the Russian government and the North Korean authorities prepared a bilateral agreement on the deportation of refugees. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, the document does not mention either human rights or judicial protection for refugees. Refugees forced to return to North Korea will face execution.


Russia and North Korea share a 19-kilometer border, but most North Korean refugees escape to Russia through China. Photo: Andy Wong / AP


Details of the bilateral agreement between Russia and North Korea on the deportation of refugees have recently come to light. As far as is known, the agreement has not yet come into force, but an executive protocol on its implementation is currently being prepared.

On September 2, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed Order N 1682-р, which authorized the Russian federal migration service to sign on behalf of the Russian government an agreement with North Korea entitled “On Deporting and Receiving Individuals Who Unlawfully Entered or Unlawfully Reside on the Territory of the Russian Federation and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

Do not be deceived by the title of this agreement. The rules of diplomacy demand that mutual obligations be respected; however, this agreement is essentially one-sided in nature and affects only North Korean asylum-seekers and refugees in Russia. There are no known cases of people fleeing from Russia to North Korea. However, many people are known to have escaped in the opposite direction.

Russia and North Korea share a 19-kilometer border, but most North Korean refugees escape to Russia through China. The border between China and North Korea is almost 1,500 kilometers in length and is apparently not as secure as that which separates Russia and North Korea.

In the times of “brotherly friendship” between the Soviet Union and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korean labor camps were situated in the Soviet Far East, where North Korean citizens were put to work logging and wood-cutting. These camps were controlled by the North Korean authorities, security forces, courts, and laws. The Soviet authorities did not interfere with their business. In return for this concession, North Korea sent a quantity of produced goods to the USSR. North Koreans who ended up in such camps were considered lucky, since people there did not die of hunger. The prisoners’ families remained in North Korea as hostages.

After the collapse of communism in the USSR, the North Korean camp system in Russia started to slowly come apart. Prisoners escaped, despite high levels of security and the risk of execution on the slightest suspicion of any attempt to escape. Some escapees reached Moscow and sought asylum there; others fled farther to the west. The North Korean secret services operated shamelessly in Moscow to catch those who had managed to escape. The Russian police turned a blind eye to these practices and sometimes even assisted with them. Human rights organizations, in their turn, concealed refugees from the police and the North Korean secret services and helped them to obtain legal status or find asylum in other countries.

After the North Korean labor camps in Russia’s Far East closed, North Korean secret service operatives disappeared as well, and authorized Russian government organizations unenthusiastically kept on searching for refugees. Apparently, such inactivity did not satisfy North Korea. Being the most interested party, it was probably North Korea that put forward this most recent intergovernmental initiative. In return, North Korea likely made certain concessions to Russia.

Refugees who hoped to be protected by a democratic Russia will be hunted down, put in temporary internment and detention facilities, and then deported back to their country of origin, where they will face execution

The agreement regulates all procedures related to “unlawful entry and unlawful stay.” Article 5 of the agreement establishes a 30-day time frame within which refugees should be deported after being sanctioned by the state in which these individuals reside.

The terms of the agreement are very detailed, covering questions of transit, time frames, proceedings, and interstate coordination. The agreement does not include any provisions on “irrelevant” issues like human rights, judicial protection, or international obligations. Only Article 12 states that “the present agreement does not affect either party’s rights and obligations that arise under other international treaties to which the concerned state is a party.”

Hardly anything can prevent Russia from deporting refugees back to North Korea. The public will simply be completely uninformed about the whole situation. The agreement does not provide for the possibility of a judicial protest against the deportation decision. Consequently, court proceedings will not be open to the public, and human rights organizations will not be able to interfere. There will be no defense lawyers, no independent translators or interpreters, and no public oversight. The UN Supreme Commissariat for Refugees will not be able to obtain any information on deportation decisions or procedures.

Refugees who hoped to be protected by a democratic Russia will be hunted down, put in temporary internment and detention facilities, and then deported back to their country of origin, where they will face execution and their families indefinite imprisonment in concentration camps.

The federal migration service and other competent Russian authorities will try to implement this agreement discreetly, without attracting unnecessary attention. Article 8 of the executive protocol implementing the agreement even specifies that refugees be accompanied by an “escort,” who will always appear in civilian clothing.

Does this mean that North Korean refugees will no longer seek asylum in Russia? Hardly. First, news about refugees being deported from Russia cannot be made widely known in North Korea, because the mass media in that country are completely under state control, whereas rumors about Russia being a democratic country are rather persistent. Second, there is always a chance to break through administrative barriers, outwit the immigration services, and obtain legal status in Russia or neighboring countries.

Refugees fleeing from hunger and terror have hardly anything to lose. They find life in North Korea unbearable. The risks of deportation or death while crossing the border are insignificant for them compared to the hopes they harbor of achieving freedom and a normal human existence.