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Fears Of Deportation For North Korean Defector Living In Russia

North Koreans work at the construction site in the Russian Far East city Vladivostok.

Choe Myong Bok has lived in Russia since 1999, has carved out a living working odd jobs, and resides in St. Petersburg with his partner and their two young children.

But the North Korean defector's life in Russia has been one on the lam. While he arrived in the country legally with a group of laborers to work in a logging camp in Russia's Far East, he has been without documents since escaping from the camp and making his way to the northern capital.

Now Choe faces imminent deportation back to his homeland -- a fate his lawyer fears could mean torture or even death -- despite a ruling from the European Court Of Human Rights (ECHR) ordering Russia not to send him back until further review.

His situation stems from a year-old agreement between Russia and North Korea under which they agreed to repatriate citizens living illegally in each other's countries. Choe's detention in January left him at the mercy of the Vsevolozhsky district court, which ruled that the 54-year-old should be sent back to North Korea, effective February 10.

The ECHR -- to which Russia is a signatory -- ordered the Russian authorities on February 6 not to deport Choe until his case could be reviewed.

But his lawyer, Olga Tseytlina of the Memorial human rights organization, has expressed concerns that her client could be deported within days, and fears that he may have signed off on such a fate.

Tseytlina was quoted by the daily Kommersant media as saying that Federal Security Service (FSB) officers visited Choe's home on February 1 and asked him to sign some documents.

The lawyer suggests that Choe, whose knowledge of Russian is limited, might have signed a request to send him back to his home country.

Choe lives in St Petersburg with his Russian partner Yelena Kogai and their two young children. Kogai told Kommersant that Choe's passport was confiscated in 1999 when he arrived in Russia to work at the logging camp run by North Korean authorities in Amur Province, in Russia's Far East.

Choe reportedly escaped the camp in 2002 and moved to St. Petersburg, where he has since lived illegally without documents.

Kogai told the Russian daily that she met Choe in 2010, and that he worked on construction sites for churches and took other odd jobs to make a living.

Deadly Deportation

The deportation agreement worked out between Moscow and Pyongyang would most likely affect North Korean defectors living in Russia, as there are no known cases of Russian citizens living illegally in North Korea.

The United Nations criticized the treaty at the time, saying that sending defectors back to North Korea puts them at risk of serious harm in their home country. A 2014 UN report stated that defectors forcibly sent back home face detention, torture, or execution in North Korea.

It's unclear whether Choe has ever officially applied for asylum in Russia. However, Russian authorities reportedly often reject asylum requests by North Koreans.

According to the Civic Assistance human rights group in Russia, only two North Korean applicants out of 211 were granted refugee status in Russia between 2004 and 2014.

Ninety others out of 170 applicants were granted so-called temporary refuge, which lasts for only one year.

In 2008, Russian authorities deported North Korean defector Ryu En Nam, who sought asylum in Russia. Civic Assistance claims Ryu was killed by North Korean authorities who tied him to the back of a train after his forcible return home.

Choe's lawyer warns that he might face a similar fate if sent back.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Kommersant
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.