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Russians flee to South Korea to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine

SEOUL — Groups of Russians have sailed to South Korea in an attempt to avoid being conscripted for the war in Ukraine — only for most of them to be refused entry at the border.

Korean Coast Guard records show a total of five boats carrying 23 people have reached the country since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the “partial mobilization” of military reservists last month after suffering military and territorial losses in Ukraine.

After Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 300,000 reservists would be called up, Russian men of fighting age have scrambled to leave the country to avoid the draft, with thousands pouring into neighboring countries such as Georgia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, as well places farther afield like Turkey.

Car traffic brought border crossings to a standstill and some flights were sold out, but now it seems some Russians are taking even more extreme measures to avoid conscription.

An Ho-young, a lawmaker with South Korea’s opposition Democratic Party, told NBC News by phone Thursday that all 23 Russian nationals had applied for tourist visas.

Russia Ukraine Military Operation Partial Mobilisation
Men conscripted for military service during partial mobilization in Novosibirsk, Russia, on Oct. 5. Alexandr Kryazhev / Sputnik via AP

But he said 21 were denied approval on the basis of “insufficient documentation and unclear objective” for entering South Korea.

The two successful applicants had documents showing records of having previously been in South Korea.

“It is likely that Korea is becoming an intermediate stopover as more people attempt to escape Russia,” An said, adding it was “urgent” for the government to come up with measures to handle a potential influx of men fleeing mobilization, “such as dedicated procedures for handling what could turn into a diplomatic and human rights issue.”

Russian nationals are allowed visa-free entry to South Korea, but permission to enter the country can be denied by immigration officials, he said.

Another boat, a 17-ton yacht carrying 10 Russian nationals, entered Korean waters but did not dock in the country.

It was spotted in the East Sea on Oct. 1 and requested permission to dock in the city of Busan, An said, adding that immigration authorities refused the Russians permission to enter the country, citing their lack of a verifiable travel purpose.

The boat eventually docked in Pohang, North Gyeongsang, north of Busan, and set out to sea again at 5 p.m. on Oct. 11 with all of its passengers, An said.

A 6-ton yacht also arrived in South Korea on Oct. 1, according to the Coast Guard. The boat requested permission to dock in the city of Sokcho to allow six passengers to come ashore — but again was turned down.

The boat instead set sail for the east Russian port of Vladivostok on Oct. 5, but was forced to make a stopover on Ulleung Island due to adverse weather and dangerous sea conditions before finally departing South Korean waters on Tuesday.

An said that the Coast Guard record showed that one boat from Russia is still docked in Pohang after being discovered at sea by a patrol boat on Oct. 11. All four individuals aboard were denied entry.

“The Russian visitors went through a regular routine immigration process like everybody else and those denied of entry to South Korea were because they did not meet the visa requirements and regulations,” a South Korean Justice Ministry spokesperson said in a telephone interview Friday.

“Anyone wishing to enter South Korean territory must provide at least the ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization), KETA (Korea Electronic Travel Authorization) or other forms of visa, but those Russian visitors denied entry failed to provide any forms of entry visa,” the spokesperson said.

Kriti Gandhi and Hannah Lee contributed.

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