China and Russia are the two most convenient ways for North Koreans to escape their brutal and bankrupt dictatorship. Since the 1990s over 30,000 North Koreans have escaped from their homeland to China where they pay smugglers additional fees to get them to southern China. From there they can get to Thailand and a South Korean embassy that is ready to get them to South Korea and a new life. The escape route has been a major embarrassment to North Korea and strenuous efforts have been made to reduce the flow of “defectors” to South Korea and a more prosperous life.
Less known is the smaller number who escape via Russia. That is more difficult because while it is possible to get into Russia there is no large ethnic Korean community in Russia as there is in northeastern China. However, there are thousands of North Korean contract workers in factories and other jobs, like logging. To prevent defections there are strict requirements for getting a job in Russia. Applicants must have no family history of defecting and you must be married with children. Preference is given to those who are members of the Workers Party, the political organization that runs North Korea. Most of their pay in Russia goes to the North Korean government or corrupt security and supervisory personnel that go with them to Russia. Even so the North Korean workers can keep up to $2,000 a year and send that back to their families during their five-year contract. With that kind of money, a family can live well in North Korea. Another major fringe benefit for the workers in Russia is adequate food, lodging and medical care. This is something hard to get in North Korea and it is a major draw, so much so that many workers apply for another five years in Russia and are often allowed to remain or return.
Even so, workers in Russia also learn a new language and find out that North Korea is really a hellhole compared to Russia, China and especially South Korea. They also discover the true origins of the Kim family that has ruled North Korea since 1945. North Korean “founder” Kim Il Sung served in the Russian army during World War II and wasn’t even born in North Korea. He basically did whatever his Russian masters ordered him to, including undertaking the disastrous invasion of South Korea in 1950. The three-year war devastated both Koreas and did a lot more damage to North Korea than to South Korea. Russians and the world discovered the ugly details after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and Russians are still eager to tell North Korean workers the truth, accompanied by convincing details. Russia also compelled China to send an army into North Korea in late 1950 to prevent the American led UN force from advancing all the way to the Chinese-Russian border and reuniting Korea. Chinese in northeast China, including the large ethnic population in that part of China also know all of this and resent Russia for getting hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers killed to keep North Korea independent of South Korea. For those who escape to China this news is not as surprising as it is to the North Korean who qualify to work in Russia. Those North Koreans are selected for their loyalty to the North Korean Kim family that, in its third generation is still misruling the poverty stricken north.
The truth can change a man and that often happens to some of the North Korean workers in Russia. Every year a few will disappear, often with a new Russian girlfriend or wife, and head for Europe. This is easy to do in Russia, where people are allowed to move about freely and even leave the country. Few of these defectors want to go to South Korea because it is common knowledge that South Korea is inclined to comply with Russian demands to return such defectors to Russia and then to North Korea, where these trusted North Koreans face execution or life in brutal and eventually fatal labor camps. Western Europe is paradise enough for the North Koreans who abandon their North Korean families to find and new and more comfortable lives in European counties that are not going to send them back to Russia. South Korea has developed good diplomatic and economic relations with Russia while Europeans see Russia as a threat, as well as a trading partner.
Despite the loss of more and more North Korean workers in Russia, the money North Korea makes from those workers is still too useful to lose. The defectors are seen as a cost of doing business and those who use the Russian Gambit are marked for execution if North Korea ever gets their hands on them. Recently Russia allowed North Korea to send special North Korea secret police teams to Russia to try and hunt down and capture defectors. That has been done for years in northeastern China, with some success but in Russia there are fewer defectors and a large country they can get lost in. The Russian-speaking North Korean agents have not had much success yet but they will keep trying. Even for North Korean secret police life is better in Russia.