In 2008, Ryu En Nam, a North Korean defector, was extradited from Russia and executed. He was tied to the train going back to North Korea. “It was horrible. The train started moving and for as long as he could, Ryu En Nam ran with it,” human rights lawyer Lubov Tataretz said, recalling what a Korean diplomat’s son had told her, a few years after she tried and failed to prevent Ryu En Nam’s extradition. Under a recently signed treaty, the few asylum seekers who manage to escape the hermit kingdom and make it to Russia will be forcibly repatriated, to a country where prison inmates have to burn bodies of those who starve to death and use the remains as fertilizer.

Two years ago in Moscow, on an icy winter day, Civic Assistance Committee, a leading Russian group to protect migrant rights, was hosting a press conference. It was a good conference, well attended, and, unlike the Kadyrov report press conference in Moscow last month, it ran smoothly, without heckling or bomb threats.

Tataretz spoke out that day against the drafted agreement between Russia and North Korea to deport illegal migrants found to be living in either country within 30 days. Despite the apparent reciprocity of the agreement, it was transparently one-sided: Russians are very unlikely to move illegally to North Korea.

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On February 2, 2016, Russia’s Federal Migration Service signed the contested document. The reaction was minimal. State Duma opposition deputy Dmitry Gudkov grumble-commented in his blog on Echo Moscow, “Strengthening the friendship with blood, how else.”

Before North Korea’s nuclear threats and Russia’s retaliatory warnings this week, it seemed like Russia had been tying itself to North Korea quite a lot over the past two years. According to the Carnegie Moscow Centre, the last time there was this much “excitement” in the Moscow-Pyongyang relationship was in the mid-1980s. As tension sizzles between Moscow and Washington, the treaty could come as a handy bargaining chip for Russia. Last month at the UN, U.S diplomats were grinding their teeth after Russia delayed a vote on tougher sanctions for North Korea. North Korea irritates the U.S. Thus, a treaty with North Korea shall irritate the U.S.

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Human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina told me, “we are going back to the USSR and the relationships with countries that were during that period.” The Russian government “wants to have a big crowd of people in our square, cheering for Putin.”

In theory, the arrangement between Russia and North Korea is purely technical. It is common for countries to have this kind of formal agreement, so long as it includes provisions for each state to deny a repatriation request if it believes that the individual is at risk of persecution. But the Federal Migration Service’s past treatment of North Korea refugees does not encourage confidence that these provisions will be upheld: Over the past decade, 200 North Koreans applied for Russian refugee status. Only two were successful.

Currently, the Federal Migration Service (or FMS) is reviewing a North Korean defector’s application for refugee status for the fourth and final time. Civic Assistance Committee is withholding the name of the defector, who has lived in Russia since 2013, for safety concerns. The media calls him “Kim.” Kim is an impressive man. He escaped from North Korea twice. The lawyers at Civic Assistance are reluctant to make new statements about Kim during the trial period, but Gannushkina showed me an article published by the organization back in 2014, which tells his story.

Kim first crossed the river from North Korea to China when he was 17. It was 1997, there was a famine going on, and his boarding school had just closed down because it couldn’t feed its students. He lived illegally for eight years in China, until Chinese officials caught him trying to travel to Russia and quickly deported him back to North Korea. North Korean defectors don’t have a shot at asylum in China, where they are regarded as no more than economic migrants.

As punishment for crossing the border without authorization, Kim was sent to a prison camp “for re-education.” At these camps, fifty prisoners sleep in one room on a floor without bedding. Kim told Civic Assistance he worked 20 hours a day. (It could have been much worse at a camp for political prisoners.)

One day, when sent to work outside the camp, he and 30 others took a chance and ran away. Three men, Kim included, successfully hid in the home of an acquaintance. The rest were caught and shot. Again, Kim crossed over the river into China. Again, he lived day-to-day in hiding, this time only for five years. He managed to cross the frozen Amur River into the Russian border city of Blagoveshchensk. He ran into some Russian border guards and told them he wanted to request refugee status. They responded by arresting him.

Many of the North Koreans who defect to Russia do so after being exported by their motherland to work as construction workers or lumberjacks in Russia’s far east. The system is tightly controlled. In contracts, Russia demands that North Korea guarantee against the flight of their workers. According to reports, officials in the region are plagued with immigration fears and the Far East region is historically an area of Korean migration.

Still, Lubov Tataretz believes that North Koreans have good reasons for wanting asylum in Russia. She tells me, “I think that Russia for (North Koreans) is not hostile to them in all senses.” She adds that this is especially the case for those who work here and who can, to some extent, communicate with Russian people.

In 2014, the UN published an updated report that details the fate of North Koreans who are forcibly repatriated to Pyongyang. The good news, such as it is, is that punishment for defecting isn’t certain death. Alternatives such as torture, detention, starvation and forced abortion “for being impregnated by Chinese men” are also on the table.

But the UN report obviously didn’t impress the FMS. Last year, Gannushkina tells me, 25 people applied for refugee status and 36 applied for temporary asylum. 31 people got temporary asylum, but nobody received refugee status.

When I asked Svetlana Gannushkina what official reasons were given for rejecting an application, she snorted, “Who knows?” I asked her whether the FMS accepts bribes. She laughed. “As usual, they do. And it’s not a secret.”

Corruption in the FMS doesn’t just affect North Korean refugees. In Spring 2014 there were reports that the FMS in Dagestan weren’t allowing Syrian asylum-seekers to even submit applications for refugee status. Civic Assistance’s Muiz Abu Aljadail went to Dagestan to investigate. He met with a department head who assured Abu Aljadail that Syrians simply don’t apply for asylum in Dagestan.

The next day, Abu Aljadail returned to the FMS centre with 35 Syrians who wanted to apply. Sixteen were permitted to submit their applications. The rest were taken outside and locked out of the building. An intermediary walked up to the group and told the waiting Syrians that he was the only person who could help them apply for refugee status—but it would cost them.

According to what Muiz Abu Aljadail told Civic Assistance blogger Oleg Pshenichny, “There is a police and FMS mafia who have created a whole system of slave labour and extortion.... at every stage of the decision-making, the corrupt system gets tens of thousands of roubles from each person.”

When Gannushkina visited the Kirkenes refugee camp in December, many of the third country asylum seekers—mainly Afghans, Syrians and people from assorted African nations leaving Russia for Norway—confirmed to her that they had to pay the FMS for their temporary asylum. For the FMS, it seems that giving official status to refugees is a question of money, and fair individual assessment is out of the question.

And if you don’t bribe, get ready to be exploited. Abu Aljadail also said that if you can’t buy your temporary asylum, “you will either not get a job or be forced to work illegally, which has led to the emergence of entire slave-labor enterprises.” The Sochi Olympics were a testament to such enterprises.

Fortunately for Kim, he avoided that particular exploitation. When he didn’t have papers, Civic Assistance provided accommodation for him. In return, and to pass the time, he swept the courtyard regularly.

The deficiencies, protection gaps and abuses that riddle Russia’s asylum system are notorious. International organizations have warned countries like Norway to be extra careful about sending refugees back to Russia. According to the United Nations refugee agency and Norway’s own country of origin office, the FMS just isn’t capable of protecting those asylum seekers who face persecution in their home countries, which only confirms that the provisions in the Russia-North Korea agreement will be useless in practice.

In the end, the signed document still manages to make a hopeless situation worse. Kim was jailed instantly after crossing into Blagoveshchensk in spring of 2013. A refugee advocacy group bailed him out of jail, and then referred him to Civic Assistance. His application for refugee status was only ready to be submitted by the end of that year. Now, he’d be sent back to North Korea before any of those things could happen.

In the cramped and busy Civic Assistance headquarters on Olimpiysky Boulevard, at least 30 people were standing and sitting, waiting for appointments. Phones were ringing. The only free seats were four baby-blue plastic chairs piled up around an empty play table in the middle of the room.

The organization is going through hard times. Russia’s 2012 foreign agent law fleeced much of its funding. And since Civic Assistance itself was added to the demonic register in April, for “attempting to influence public policy,” stigma has made it more vulnerable to bullying from the FMS. This summer in Noginsk, for example, FMS officials got away with carrying out a full blown search on a Civic Assistance learning centre for refugee children, under the false pretense that there was a Syrian terrorist hiding in the school. The centre was subsequently shut down.

Behind her desk, Gannushkina had to shout over the commotion in her gravelly voice, “The agreement will be very bad for North Korean migrants. We were working to help them. Now they can’t get our help. Because of this document, they will be sent back before they can even appeal.”


Illustration by Jim Cooke. Emma Lantreev is a freelance writer who lives and works in Moscow.