This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Russian authorities have issued a missing persons alert for the family of a North Korean diplomat, in what local and international media reports said could be an attempted defection.
According to a public notice issued Tuesday, Kim Kum Sun, 43, and her son Park Kwon Ju, 15, were last seen on Sunday leaving the North Korean consulate in Vladivostok, in Russia’s far east, and their whereabouts are unknown.
They are the wife and son of a North Korean trade representative in his 60s surnamed Park, sources in Vladivostok told RFA’s Korean Service. Park, considered a diplomat, had returned to North Korea in 2019, they said.
Park and his family were dispatched to Russia prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, where they were assigned to earn foreign currency for the North Korean regime by running the Koryo and Tumen River restaurants in Vladivostok, a source in Vladivostok who declined to be named told Radio Free Asia.
The missing woman was identified as Kim Kum Sun, who was the acting manager of both restaurants on behalf of her husband, according to a Russian citizen of Korean descent familiar with confidential news involving North Korean state-run companies in Vladivostok. He spoke to Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Rode off in taxi
On the day they disappeared, the mother and son rode a taxi and got off on Nevskaya Street, which is not far from the consulate, Russian Media reported. The consulate reported to authorities that they had lost touch with the pair after they were not able to contact them.
“[The mother and son] had been detained in the North Korean consulate in Vladivostok for several months and then disappeared during the time they had once per week to go out,” the Russian citizen of Korean descent said.
“Park said he would return after the restaurant’s business performance review, but he was not able to return because the border has been closed since COVID hit,” he said, adding that the pandemic was rough on business at the Koryo restaurant, that Kim Kum Sun was running in her husband’s stead.
“In October of last year, the assistant manager, who oversaw personnel escaped,” the Korean Russian said.
The assistant manager of the Koryo restaurant, Kim Pyong Chol, 51 attempted to claim asylum but was arrested.
Shortly afterward, the consulate closed the restaurant fearing that others would also attempt to escape, he said.
“The acting manager and her son were then placed under confinement inside the consulate in Vladivostok,” said the Korean Russian. “They were allowed to go out only one day a week since they did not commit any specific crime, they just did chores inside the consulate and were monitored.”
Fear of returning
Rumors about a possible reopening of the North Korea-Russia border have made North Koreans stranded in Russia by the pandemic anxious that they might have to return to their homeland soon, another North Korea-related source in Vladivostok told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“They fear that when they return to North Korea, they will return to a lifestyle where they are cut off from the outside world,” the North Korea-related source said.
The fear of returning to one of the world’s most isolated countries is palpable among the fledgling community of North Korean dispatched workers and officials in Vladivostok, said Kang Dongwan, a professor at Busan’s Dong-A University, who recently visited the far eastern Russian city.
“The North Korean workers I met in Vladivostok were in a harsh situation and were quite agitated,” he said. “If [a border reopening] happens, there is a high possibility that North Korean workers and diplomats’ families will return to North Korea. So they may have judged that the only chance to escape North Korea is now.”
According to South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo newspaper, the presidential office in Seoul has confirmed that the mother and son have gone missing, and the related South Korean agencies are actively searching for their whereabouts. They have not made contact with South Korean authorities.
An official from the office told Dong-A that the case is “not yet at the stage where they are trying to seek asylum in South Korea, as far as I know.”