North Korea Puts $10,000 Bounty on Escaped Construction Workers in Russia — Radio Free Asia

North Korean agents in Russia are offering a reward of up to $ 10,000 for information leading to the arrest of escaped North Korean construction workers, sources in Russia told RFA.

North Korean workers in Russia are violating UN sanctions there, which freeze new work visas for North Koreans and mandate the full repatriation of North Korean nationals working abroad by the end of 2019 in order to withdraw cash from Pyongyang to fund its banned nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Although tens of thousands of North Koreans returned home before the deadline, RFA and other media outlets reported last year that many were able to enter Russia on student visas and find work to earn money for the government, which is a huge cut in their revenues.

Although workers are extensively screened for loyalty to Pyongyang prior to being deployed abroad, some are taking the opportunity to escape North Korea entirely by running away from their jobs in Russia and hiding.

In order to maintain control of this valuable foreign source for the North Korean government, agents in Russia are offering people rewards given by workers trying to flee.

“Arrest operations of North Korean agents are ongoing and a wanted order has been issued for North Korean workers who have fled their workplaces in Vladivostok,” a Russian citizen of Korean descent from the Russian city of Far East told the RFA’s Korean service last week.

“Nowadays it is spreading among the ethnic Korean communities in Nakhodka, Khabarovsk and Ussuriysk that you can get a bounty for reporting a North Korean worker who has fled a local construction site,” said the source, who asked for anonymity speak freely.

According to the source, the amount awarded to informants varied depending on the company they employed, but some of the refugees had a bounty of $ 10,000.

“As of late last year, around 10 North Korean workers have fled a single construction site in Khabarovsk, but no one knows where they are now,” the source said.

“Among the refugees are two officials who directed the workers. That’s the $ 10,000 worth of people, ”the source said.

The annual salary for one of the construction workers is about $ 10,000, most of which is passed on to the North Korean government. However, the source said the arrest of the two officers was a high priority for their company as they were key figures in the operation.

“When a worker escapes from a construction site in Russia, the officials who administered and monitored that worker are called back to North Korea and cleaned up. Therefore, the officers had no choice but to escape themselves, “the source said.

“But if the officials flee, the company itself will be severely punished and they will try their best to arrest the refugees and even risk raising short funds for the party,” the source said.

Another Russian of Korean descent from Ussuriysk, about 50 miles north of Vladivostok, told the RFA that news of rewards for helping arrest escaped North Koreans had recently spread there.

“There was an announcement that a bounty would be paid for working together to find hidden North Korean construction workers,” said the second source, who asked for anonymity for security reasons.

“So far, North Korean workers entering Russia have worked in Russia even after their visas expired, but were unable to return home due to the coronavirus. North Korean recruitment companies and the workers themselves believe they are fortunate enough not to be able to return to North Korea because of the coronavirus. They continue to earn foreign currency, ”said the second source.

In March last year, Russian authorities notified the UN Security Council’s Sanctions Committee for North Korea that North Korea had closed its borders due to the coronavirus outbreak and that around 500 North Korean workers in Russia would not be able to return home.

The second source said the North Korean authorities asked the Russian police to issue wanted orders for the escaped workers. They also advertised the US $ 10,000 bounty and asked the local ethnic Korean community in Ussuriysk for assistance in finding them.

But if the workers remain loyal to Pyongyang and don’t flee, they run the risk of being arrested by the Russian police anyway.

Last week, police arrested seven North Koreans at a construction site near Moscow for working on student visas.

A third Russian citizen of Korean descent told the RFA that the seven North Koreans were caught when police arrived for an unannounced inspection.

“The Russian police investigated foreign nationals who were staying illegally and arrested those who worked on the site and had student visas,” said the third source, who asked for anonymity for security reasons.

“This type of crackdown on North Koreans about their visas is common. Seven of the workers had student visas, ”the source said.

Russia, which has been criticized for the poor implementation of UN sanctions, intermittently takes action against illegal foreigners. The North Korean workers and their employer were surprised during the inspection.

“They claimed they were international students during the police investigation, but when police asked what college they were studying at, workers in their twenties and thirties couldn’t even answer that basic question,” the third source said.

“Before the sanctions of the UN Security Council came into force, most of the North Koreans sent to Russia were over 40 years old. But these days they send people in their twenties and thirties because if people in their forties and fifties with kids apply for a study abroad visa, who would believe them? “The third source said.

The police classified the seven as illegal aliens and, according to the third source, detained them.

“The North Korean embassy went to the police station to verify their identity and asked the police for their indulgence.”

A fourth Russian of Korean descent from St. Petersburg informed the RFA that North Koreans had also returned to this city.

“Most of them are young workers in their thirties or younger from Pyongyang and they have been in Russia for about two months,” said the fourth source, who refused to be named.

“In the past, North Korea has sent soldiers on active duty to Russia as workers. To avoid international criticism of the posting of active duty personnel to earn foreign currency, North Korean authorities forced them to grow their hair and dress in ordinary work clothes, ”the fourth source said.

The fourth source said that longer hair and the lack of a military uniform are enough to survive as a student.

“When North Korean workers are caught by the police on construction sites, they claim they are not illegal residents. They claim to be international students who work during the holidays to make extra money, ”the fourth source said.

“Many North Korean workers traveled in small groups from Pyongyang to Vladivostok via Air Koryo between the end of last year and the beginning of this year. After that, they were scattered regionally to find construction sites in local towns and worked on a small scale to earn foreign currency. “

Following the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2397 in December 2017, tens of thousands of North Korean workers had been repatriated to Russia by the end of 2019.

According to CNN, an estimated 50,000 North Koreans were working in Russia in January 2018 – many in construction – in what the US State Department described as “slave-like” work.

RFA reported in September 2019 that several hundred North Korean workers were spotted at Vladivostok Airport waiting to board flights to Pyongyang.

RFA also reported in March 2020 that North Korea was preparing to switch workers to Russia but plans had stalled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The UN Security Council’s Sanctions Committee for North Korea did not respond to RFA’s questions about the situation on Friday afternoon.

A fifth source familiar with the North Korean work situation in Russia told the RFA that 2,000 to 3,000 North Koreans are currently working in Russia to earn foreign money for Pyongyang in violation of sanctions.

Reported by Jieun Kim for the Korean Service of the RFA. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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