Sunday, 21 March 2010

North Korean loggers in Russia making defection bids

The North Korean's note, scrawled in pen, was simple: "I want to go to South Korea. Why? To find freedom. Freedom of religion, freedom of life."

The ex-logger, on the run from North Korean authorities, handed the note over to a South Korean missionary in the Russian city of Vladivostok last week in hopes it would lead to political asylum.

Just before he was to meet Thursday with the International Organization for Migrants, a team of men grabbed him, slapped handcuffs on him and drove off, rights activists in Moscow said Friday. He was spirited away to the eastern port city of Nakhokda, where he is sure to be handed back over to North Korean officials and repatriated to his communist homeland, activists said in Seoul.

Police in Vladivostok refused to comment. A senior South Korean diplomat in Vladivostok said he had no information. Officials from the U.S. consulate in Vladivostok could not be reached for comment.

The 51-year-old would be the third North Korean logger in Russia in a week to make a bid for asylum. On March 9, two other North Koreans who had fled their jobs as loggers managed to get into the South Korean consulate in Vladivostok.

Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported last week that two North Koreans climbed a fence, ran past the guards and entered the consulate, saying they wanted political asylum. ITAR-Tass carried a similar report.

The incidents focused attention on the precarious existence of tens of thousands of North Koreans sent by the impoverished regime to work in neighboring Russia.

Russian government figures from 2007 put the number of North Korean laborers at 32,600, most of them working in logging in the remote east.

The Rev. Peter Chung, a Seoul-based activist, said there are about 40,000 North Korean loggers in Russia, but that some 10,000 of them have fled their work sites. Some are finding work as day laborers while others are in hiding as they try to map out how to win asylum in foreign diplomatic missions.

North Korea has been exporting workers to make hard cash since natural disasters and mismanagement destroyed the country's economy in the 1990s. Laborers have been sent to Russia, Mongolia, eastern Europe and elsewhere, South Korea's Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said Friday.

The logger seized Thursday in Vladivostok represents a grim picture of life as a lumberjack in remote Russian outposts, according to Chung, head of the Seoul rights group Justice for North Korea.

The man, surname Kim, told activists he first went to Russia in October 1997, leaving behind a wife and two daughters, and worked there for four years. He went back to Russia in 2006, said Kim Hi-tae of the International Network of North Korea Human Rights Activists in Seoul.

The North Korean described the conditions as unbearable. His government took half his meager wages, while the North Korean company operating the logging camp took 35 percent. He kept just 15 percent —about $60 a month — an arrangement that rendered him "virtually a slave," he told activists.
He eventually fled the logging camp, taking odd jobs to survive. He also became a Christian, Chung and Kim Hi-tae said, which could draw severe punishment, even execution, back home.

The successful asylum bid of two other former North Korean loggers inspired Kim to make a similar attempt, Chung said.

He turned up at a safe house that day, saying he wanted help seeking asylum. The missionary asked for a statement, so he scribbled down his name, date of birth and hometown in Korean.

"Wife, two daughters. Sent to Russia in October 1997," he wrote, using the North Korean spelling for "Russia." He dated it March 9, 2010, and signed his name with an emphatic period in his characteristic North Korean script.

The note was obtained by The Associated Press after being scanned and sent by e-mail from Vladivostok to Seoul. Activists asked that he be identified by his surname only to protect his family.

The group Human Rights in Russia said on its Web site that a North Korean named Kim who had sought help from the International Organization for Migrants was waiting in a car outside a Vladivostok hotel to speak to rights officials.

"At this time, another car pulled up to the hotel. Several men in civilian dress got out of it and told the driver of the car that his 'passenger is a criminal,'" the group's statement said. They put handcuffs on Kim, sat him in their car and drove off.

It was unclear who took him, and where they went, it said.

The taxi driver who said he took Kim to the hotel on Thursday morning, told AP from Vladivostok on Saturday that he and Kim were waiting in the car for about 10 minutes, but suddenly about five to six Russian men came and put handcuffs on Kim and took him away in their car. The taxi driver only identified himself as Alexander.

A tapped phone call to the South Korean or U.S. consulate may have alerted authorities to Kim's plan, the Seoul activists said. Kim is believed to have been sent to Nakhodka, a port city not far from North Korea, for possible repatriation, said Chung and Kim Hi-tae.

On Friday, Chung, Kim Hi-tae and dozens of rights activists and North Korean defectors, some wearing black hoods to conceal their identities, rallied near the Russian Embassy in central Seoul. They urged Moscow to immediately release the North Korean and to let the U.N. refugee agency interview him.

Kim and other fugitive loggers "will definitely face political persecution if they are sent back home," Chung said.

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