Choe Kum Chol, a 33-year-old North Korean military information technology officer, escaped his North Korean minders in July 2021 while working in Vladivostok in far eastern Russia. He was assisted by an activist, also a North Korean escapee, who remotely helps North Koreans in Russia and China reach safety. But in September, Choe was taken into custody and has not been seen or heard from since.
Many North Koreans travel to Vladivostok to earn a living. While there, North Korean officials keep them under strict surveillance to prevent escapes. They must report on each other’s actions and are not allowed to walk around by themselves, speak with local residents, access the internet for personal purposes, or hold passports.
The activist who aided Choe’s escape tried to help him seek asylum in Russia and provided him with a safe house. But on September 20, 2021, Choe sent an urgent text message asking for help, saying he had just spotted five men in Russian police uniforms coming towards the safe house. “The police officers broke down the door of the house and took him away,” the activist said. “Choe was staying in an unpopulated rural area with no CCTVs. I don’t know how they found him.”
In December 2021, the activist received information that Choe was being held in the North Korean consulate in Vladivostok with two other North Koreans. Last week, the activist decided to go public to call on the Russian government to prevent Choe’s forced return to North Korea. North Koreans who are forcibly returned face horrific punishments, including torture, long imprisonment, forced labor, and possible execution.
Choe’s case is not unique. While the total number of North Koreans forcibly disappeared in Russia in the past decade is unknown, Russian police have a history of arresting North Koreans at Pyongyang’s request. Human Rights Watch is aware of at least three similar cases of North Koreans in Russia who went missing while trying to apply for refugee status. These were subsequently communicated to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Russian government should publicly uphold the right of North Koreans to seek asylum in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Russia has ratified. It needs to protect asylum seekers from enforced disappearance and prevent their forced return. Choe Kum Choi and other North Koreans in Russia should be provided safe passage to a third country.