Russia has been dodging U.N. sanctions and hiring North Korean workers to push back against the U.S.-led maximum-pressure policy, while supplementing the shrinking labor supply in its Far East, experts say.
“Russia and, to a certain extent, China do not want to completely follow the U.S. sanctions lead,” said Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at research group CNA.
“That allows North Korea to continue to bring in resources and funding into the regime, which maintains stability inside the regime but also makes it very difficult for the U.S. to pursue its maximum-pressure strategy,” Gause said.
North Korean workers employed overseas see little of their wages, most of which provide Pyongyang with much-needed hard currency.
Most North Korean workers whom Moscow employs work on construction projects or in the logging, agriculture and textile industries, and they are usually sent to Russia’s Far East in North Asia, said Troy Stangarone, senior director of the Korea Economic Institute.
“Russia faces a shortage of workers in its Far East and a declining population,” Stangarone said, “so the workers provide Russia needed labor at cheap costs.”
Russia has been evading U.N. sanctions that required member states to repatriate North Korean workers back by a December 22 deadline, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
“Russia has skirted the end-of-2019 requirement to send North Korean labor teams by issuing them tourism and education visas,” the report said.
Russia last year issued 16,613 tourist visas and 10,345 student visas to North Koreans, according to the Russian Interior Ministry, a sharp increase from 2,035 tourist visas and 2,610 student visas in 2018.
The 2017 U.N. Security Council resolution requiring all North Koreans to be sent home by the 2019 deadline does not ban issuance of tourist and student visas.
Joshua Stanton, a Washington attorney who helped draft the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement and Policy Enforcement Act in 2016, said, “Strictly speaking, the U.N. resolution only bans ‘work authorization.’ ”
Although not all North Koreans admitted to Russia on tourism and student visas are believed to be employed in Russia, the Congressional Research Service report suggests Moscow is using this loophole in the sanctions to permit North Koreans to enter the country to work there.
The U.S. estimates North Korea makes more than $500 million a year from approximately 100,000 workers it sends overseas. Half of those workers are believed to be in China and 30,000 in Russia.
Stanton said North Korean workers “keep very little of their own wages and toil under slave-like conditions, but they are still cheaper for Russian employers than Russian workers.”
Stangarone said that according to Russian Labor Ministry reports, “they make 40% less than the average salary in Russia.” The average salary in Russia in November was a little over $600 a month, according to Trading Economics.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said last week that Moscow missed the U.N. deadline to repatriate North Korean workers because of limited train and flight options.
“It wasn’t possible due to objective difficulties to send everyone home by December 22,” she said. “The majority of North Korean workers left our country. The rest, about 1,000 people, are in reality no longer workers since their work permits have expired and they don’t receive income in Russia.”
In December, Russia, along with China, proposed that the U.N. Security Council lift sanctions on North Korea, including restrictions placed on its workers abroad, a move the U.S. rejected.
Matthew Ha, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Russia’s disapproval of North Korea sanctions emboldens Pyongyang to continue evading them.
“Moscow has openly stated its disapproval of these U.N. sanctions and its urging of the UNSC to lift these measures,” said Ha. “Consequently, such acts … support … helping Pyongyang evade such measures.”
North Korea has been demanding the U.S. lift sanctions since last February, when its leader, Kim Jong Un, met President Donald Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam. Although Trump denied Kim’s request for sanctions relief then, North Korea has been launching missiles in part to pressure the U.S. to make concessions.
Denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington have been stalled since October, when their working-level talks in Stockholm broke down, mainly because of sanctions. North Korea continues to evade sanctions that the U.N. issued to curb its nuclear weapons program.
On a practical level, Gause said, Russia opposes the U.S. policy of applying pressure on North Korea through sanctions because it sees the policy as driving North Korea to continue develop nuclear weapons.
Russians “see the U.S. policy of maximum pressure almost ensuring that North Korea will get a nuclear capability … because it will continue to push back against that,” Gause said.
On a strategic level, Gause said Moscow’s opposition to U.S.-led policy is, in part, its attempt to defeat Washington’s effort to extend a liberal democratic order in the region as Moscow tries to exert its own influence there in the great-power competition with the U.S.
“There’s some of this that is part of the great-power competition in which Russia is pushing back against a liberal democratic order which the United States is part of,” said Gause. “If the U.S. were to shift away from the maximum pressure to a policy more aligned with China and Russia, they could declare this as a victory in terms of their influence on the international stage.”
Stangarone said a way for Moscow to exert its influence on Pyongyang is by permitting North Koreans to work in Russia.
Foreign labor as a tool
“On a political level, the use of foreign labor is one tool the Russian government uses to maintain close ties with Pyongyang,” he said.
As a way to enforce sanctions, Stangarone said, “there needs to be a clarification that North Koreans are unable to work abroad regardless of what type of visa they may be on.”
Ha said the U.S. should sanction North Korean and non-North Korean companies that help employing North Korean workers in Russia, just as the Treasury Department did early in January against two North Korean entities that facilitate employment in China.
“Increasing designations of similar companies abroad, such as in Russia, will remind these violators, whether it be the company hiring North Korean workers or the host nation of that company, that they risk penalties,” Ha said.
Connie Kim, Oh Taek-sung and Kim Seon-myung contributed to this report, which originated in VOA’s Korean service.