Pyongyang on the Neva: A North Korean Defection in Russia

By | September 12, 2016 | No Comments

In recent months, North Korea has seen a spate of curious defections, from restaurateurs to senior diplomatic and military officials. Re-emerging now, almost two months after initial reports surfaced, is one case of a senior trade official who apparently defected in Russia. The defection reportedly took place in early July, but attracted a new wave of media attention after an anonymous Russian source raised the topic again on or around August 25. It comes at a time when Pyongyang and Moscow have been taking steps to improve trade relations.

As with any high-profile incident of such a sensitive nature, conflicting reports and contradictory information abound. According to the Ukraine-based Russian-language Zerkalo Nedelyi (Weekly Mirror), the official had been working in the office of the North Korean trade representative at the DPRK consulate-general in Vladivostok. The title of the Zerkalo Nedelyi report underscores the maddening uncertainty surrounding the man’s whereabouts.

North Korean Diplomat Fled to Russia” [Северокорейский дипломат бежал в Россию], Zerkalo Nedelyi, August 25, 2016.

Everyone who can continues to flee North Korea. If they have to, even in Russia.

A North Korean diplomat defected from Pyongyang’s trade representative in Vladivostok.

According to South Korean media outlet Yonhap, citing an anonymous source, the escape occurred last month, and happened in the aftermath of  a rash of desertions from the communist country “in search of a new life in South Korea.”

It is known that the diplomat worked in the trade representative office of the DPRK’s general consulate in Vladivostok, where his main duty was exports to North Korea.

Earlier it was stated that a North Korean bureaucrat who directed finances for Office 39 of the DPRK’s ruling party, which oversees currency dealings on behalf of the government, disappeared to Europe with more than $180,000 (USD).

In 2015, ten North Korean diplomats fled to South Korea, and the same number of people have fled the DPRK in the first half of this year alone. The majority worked in diplomatic offices in countries in Europe and Southeast Asia.

Attempting to verify the facts only underscores the plethora of contradictory and incomplete information. Major Russian outlet RIA Novosti states that the diplomat, identified as Kim Chol-sam, has already reached South Korea, presumably with his family. Unlike Thae Yong-ho’s shock defection from London, South Korean officials have thus far declined to comment on whether Kim is in fact in the South. Uncertainly remains over the fleeing diplomat’s rank, too: RIA Novosti reports that he outranked the third secretary at the DPRK embassy in Russia, while Fontanka lists him as the third secretary.

846942-4

DPRK Minister of Foreign Trade Ri Ryong-nam shakes hands with Russian Minister of Regional Development Viktor Basargin on 26 August, 2011 at Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang. | Image: KCNA

Where Kim’s rank is unclear, so too is his destination. Several Russian media outlets cite Belarus as the diplomat’s geographical goal, although possibly related reports emerged in early July of a North Korean official fleeing to Ukraine after spending time under police protection in St. Petersburg. Another report initially states that Kim fled to Ukraine, but then later quotes another news agency that claimed he “used Minsk as a trampoline to the West.”

Either way, the diplomat’s escape was, according to Fontanka, organized with the knowledge and assistance of the St. Petersburg branch of the Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or FSB according to its name and acronym in Russian). The idea of state intelligence complicity in the case echoes assertions in both English- and Russian-language media that MI6 and/or the CIA facilitated Thae Yong-ho’s defection in London. Three tickets to Belarus, ostensibly for Kim, his wife and son, were purchased a mere three hours before the flight in question departed. A separate report claims that FSB agents tracked Kim’s diplomatic car en route to ensure safe passage to Pulkovo Airport, the international airport serving St. Petersburg, where he boarded a flight operated by Belavia, the Belorussian flag carrier.

Aside from the mystery as to exactly why the man flew from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg — a distance that spans virtually the entire Russian territory — the question of why Kim would elect to end up in Belarus is also intriguing. Finland and Estonia are both closer to St. Petersburg as the crow flies. Furthermore, one of the easiest countries for a North Korean citizen to enter (presuming that they have the appropriate permission to travel) is Kyrgyzstan, a country which, while geographically remote, is a good deal closer to Vladivostok and connected to Russia by daily flights. More to the point, Kyrgyzstan is one of a diminishing group of states (including the People’s Republic of China) that does not restrict entry for holders of DPRK passports.

A mixture of political and economic factors may have made Belarus the ideal stepping stone. While North Korean officials did visit Belarus last year, the two countries do not have particularly close relations, mitigating the risk that the authorities in Minsk would reject Kim. Neither is Belarus a democracy, and as such it would be a geographically proximate but counter-intuitive choice for someone supposedly seeking greater freedom. Fleeing directly to the West would be a more obvious path. Therefore, it seems probable that the main reason why Kim may have gone to Belarus was so as not to draw the attention of North Korean authorities, who might otherwise prevent him from leaving.1)Russia legally permits North Korean security agents to operate on Russian soil to prevent defections. Mostly these target exported laborers. As Russia is flanked by several EU members and other democracies, Belarus was probably the neighboring country furthest from people’s minds. Yet another possibility is that, having fled with $180,000 (according to the Zerkalo Nedelyi article translated above), Belarus could have been the best option as a destination where he could keep some of the money he took with him.

The effects of this recent defection on DPRK-Russia ties remain to be seen. Fontaka cites Vladimir Kolotov, a professor of East Asian history at St. Petersburg State University as saying:

The DPRK is famous for its cruel regime. The stricter the policies, the more ardent the attempts to escape…. I would not be surprised if, at a later date, the diplomat emerges in Europe or the United States with revelations about the North Korean regime.

But even if Kim reveals unflattering and condemnatory information about the DPRK regime, the likelihood that DPRK-Russia relations will change substantially as a consequence is remote. Recent defections from North Korea are symptomatic of larger issues in North Korea, wherein Russia merely provided the stage. That being said, it is possible that the commercial links which the DPRK and Russia have developed of late may be set back, unless someone else can pick up smoothly where Kim left off. If assertions that agents from the St. Petersburg FSB facilitated Kim’s escape are in fact true, then it could also inspire bilateral problems.

Source: “North Korean Diplomat Fled to Russia” [Северокорейский дипломат бежал в Россию], Zerkalo Nedelyi, August 25, 2016. Translation by Anthony Rinna.

   [ + ]

1. Russia legally permits North Korean security agents to operate on Russian soil to prevent defections. Mostly these target exported laborers.