On Apr. 27, this reporter received a call from a man surnamed Kim who, while claiming to be calling from an unspecified “foreign country,” said that “I have something I want to tell the world [about North Korea].”
Kim, who declined to give details about his affiliation or his full name, then launched into a breathless twenty-minute account detailing the kidnapping of a soldier dispatched to Russia by North Korea’s prosecutor’s office.
This reporter found it strange to be receiving a phone call from a North Korean living in a foreign country. Kim mentioned that he had followed Daily NK for many years while abroad and requested that the news organization publish a report that would “expose the brutality of the North Korean regime” to the entire world.
Although Kim used expressions commonly used in North Korea, Daily NK still had to confirm the legitimacy of his account. This reporter immediately contacted a source based in Russia to confirm the details of the story. The Russia-based source conveyed a report identical to that relayed by Kim.
Through this process, Daily NK gained even more information about a story the organization published back in 2018 concerning Ju Kyung Chol, a North Korean soldier living in Russia who was suddenly repatriated back to his country.
North Korea sends large numbers of soldiers to work in foreign countries to help funnel foreign currency back into the country. Ju, a staff sergeant and squad commander for the Korea Kum Reung Trading Company, a company affiliated with the Seventh General Bureau, was just an ordinary North Korean soldier dispatched to work in Russia as a construction worker.
North Korean authorities typically take out a set amount of money from the wages of ordinary overseas workers to go into the country’s “loyalty fund.” However, 100% of soldiers’ wages are taken by the authorities because they are simply “fulfilling their military service requirement” while working at overseas construction sites.
Kim told Daily NK that many soldiers dispatched to overseas construction sites have to collect cigarette butts lying on the ground next to trash cans to roll them into makeshift cigarettes. Despite such dire circumstances, the authorities repeatedly emphasized that “it is thanks to the Workers’ Party that the soldiers can eat rice and meat soup while living abroad.”
Ju had found himself in a similar situation when he reportedly began to wonder, “How will I live if I go back [to North Korea] without having earned a single US dollar?”
His pent-up feelings of betrayal by his country finally motivated him to visit the United Nations (UN) headquarters in Russia to find a way to escape to South Korea in January 2017. Ju was 27 years old at the time.
After five months, agents from Russia’s intelligence service arrived at the UN refugee camp where Ju resided and claimed that they needed to take him into police custody. The agents stated that the North Korean Central Prosecutor’s Office had notified them that Ju is a criminal and faced charges including rape of a minor and attempted murder.
“This is a common tactic used by the North Korean authorities to catch people who try to escape,” Kim told Daily NK.
Ju, locked inside a jail cell at a Saint Petersburg police station, realized the seemingly inescapable reality that he would be sent back to North Korea and killed. He reportedly burst into tears and begged for mercy from the Russian police officers.
“I will die if I get sent back to North Korea,” he reportedly sobbed. “Please don’t let me die. I have never killed anyone. I will be killed as a traitor if I go back.”
The Russians, possibly wary of receiving bad press related to human rights, reportedly conducted a careful check of the North Korean documents detailing Ju’s alleged crimes.
They found that the supposed “murder” occurred while Ju was in Russia, making it impossible for him to have committed it. The Russian authorities declared Ju innocent, released him from jail, and transferred him back into the UN refugee camp after over forty days in captivity.
After it became apparent that the Russians would not send him back to North Korea, Ju began indulging in his dreams of going to South Korea. Then, on a spring day in 2018, Ju received a meeting request from the Saint Petersburg branch of Russia’s intelligence service. He went out with his lawyer from the refugee camp to attend the meeting.
Then, the unimaginable happened. Kidnappers hired by the North Korean authorities, who had never given up on their resolve to capture Ju, kidnapped him while he was heading to the bathroom.
Ju was 28 years old when he was forcibly repatriated to North Korea. After a year of pining for freedom, he was dragged away back to his country.
“Ju was the longest-serving group leader among soldiers working on construction projects with the Seventh General Bureau, so he would have known about the flow of party funds and interpersonal connections inside and out,” a high-ranking source in North Korea told Daily NK. “When the authorities found out that Ju intended to escape to South Korea, they gave orders to bring him back dead or alive.
“Ju’s case was neither investigated nor did he ever receive a trial,” the source further said, adding, “I understand that he was executed by the Ministry of State Security in the ‘name of the revolution’ after four months of imprisonment.”
*Translated by S & J