MOSCOW, Russia — A stocky 39-year-old Korean man in a white sweater with a snowflake pattern bustled around the kitchen, adding vinegar to a seaweed salad and spices to a pot of soup. He bowed and shook hands with everyone who entered, smiling and repeating “Hello!” and “Thank you!” in broken Russian.
It was the last night in Moscow for “Kim” — a pseudonym he uses to avoid retaliation against the relatives he left behind in North Korea — and the end of a saga that began during his native country’s great famine in the 1990s in which millions of his compatriots starved to death. Kim fled not once but twice. The first time he tried to defect, he made it to China, but was sent to one of Kim Jong Un’s infamous labor camps. The typical sentence for a defector was 10 years, essentially a death sentence, given that it meant 18 hours of hard labor a day, on three spoonfuls of rice each meal. But he managed to escape, this time to Russia, where his life became a constant struggle to avoid again being deported, to an almost certain death …
But there are many other North Koreans in Russia, and few are likely to be as lucky as Kim. As political and economic ties have improved in recent years between Moscow and Pyongyang, the two neighbors have signed treaties promising to repatriate criminals and all those “who have illegally entered and are illegally located” in each other’s countries.
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