North Korean workers in Russia defect to South Korea

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April 5 (UPI) — Three North Korean laborers who were detained in Russia have been freed and allowed to travel to South Korea, according to a Russian news report.

Baikal Daily reported Saturday the former North Korean guest workers had been imprisoned in Russia for about two years after attempting to flee the country. Russia has previously evaded sanctions against North Korea through its continued deployment of the labor force.

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The North Koreans had attempted to escape by crossing into Mongolia. Russian border guards arrested the three people about 100 meters away from the border. The workers were planning to seek asylum at the South Korean Embassy in Mongolia after reaching their destination, the report said.

Russian authorities sentenced all three North Koreans to 1 year and 8 months in prison for attempting to cross the border illegally, the report said.

While serving their sentences the defectors interviewed with local media. The show is to air on local television on Sunday.

The prisoners may have been released in response to petitions from human rights defenders.

Activists in the Republic of Buryatia, part of the Russian Federation, had said the workers would be punished if returned to North Korea. Activists campaigned for the prisoners before their release, the report said.

“Fortunately, the North Koreans have been allowed passage to South Korea and they are safe,” said Alexandra Myakhanova, a lawyer and local social justice activist, according to Baikal Daily.

Myakhanova said the eldest member of the North Korean group said he wished to “die freely.”

South Korean news agency Yonhap reported Monday it is likely the defectors received help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The U.S. Congressional Research Service said last year Russia continues to evade international sanctions against North Korea.

“Russia has skirted the end-of-2019 requirement to send North Korean labor teams home by issuing them tourism and education visas,” the report said.

Russia’s foreign ministry has claimed Moscow has complied with United Nations Security Council sanctions.