SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – As the war in Ukraine extends into its seventh month, North Korea alludes to its interest in sending construction workers to help rebuild Russian-occupied territories in the east of the country .
The idea is openly endorsed by senior Russian officials and diplomats, who provide cheap and hardworking labor that could face the “hardest of circumstances,” a term the Russian ambassador to North Korea used in a recent interview.
North Korea’s ambassador to Moscow recently met envoys from two Russian-backed separatist areas in Ukraine’s Donbas region and expressed his optimism about “labour migration” cooperation, citing easing of restrictions. pandemic border controls in his country.
The talks came after North Korea became the only country in July, apart from Russia and Syria, to recognize the independence of the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk and further aligned with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.
The employment of North Korean workers in Donbas would clearly violate UN Security Council sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear and missile programs and further complicate US-led international pressure on its nuclear disarmament.
Many experts doubt North Korea will send workers as the war continues, with a steady stream of Western weapons helping Ukraine push back against much larger Russian forces.
But they say it is highly likely that North Korea will provide labor to Donbas when fighting subsides to boost its own economy, broken by years of US-led sanctions, pandemic border closures and decades of mismanagement.
Labor exports would also contribute to a longer-term North Korean strategy to strengthen cooperation with Russia and China, another ideological ally, in an emerging partnership aimed at reducing US influence in Asia.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin has said North Korean construction companies have already offered to help rebuild war-torn areas in Donbas, and North Korean workers would be welcome if they come.
That’s a clear break from Russia’s stance in December 2017, when it backed new UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, requiring member states to deactivate all North Korea. to expel Korean workers from their territory within 24 months.
Russia now appears eager to undermine those sanctions as it faces a US-led pressure campaign aimed at isolating its economy over its aggression in Ukraine, said Lim Soo-ho, a senior analyst at the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s spy agency.
“For Russia, the idea of employing North Korean workers for post-war reconstruction has real merit,” said Lim. “In previous years, large numbers of North Korean construction workers came to Russia and the demand for their labor was high because they were cheap and known for quality work.”
Before the 2017 sanctions, the export of labor was a rare legitimate source of foreign currency for North Korea, providing the government with hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The US State Department previously estimated that about 100,000 North Koreans worked abroad in government-controlled jobs, mainly in Russia and China, but also in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and South Asia.
Civilian experts say the workers made $200 million to $500 million a year for the government of North Korea while earning only a fraction of their salary, often toiling for more than 12 hours a day under constant surveillance by the security forces of the United States. their country.
While Russia sent some North Korean workers home before the UN deadline in December 2019, an uncertain number remained, who continued to work or became trapped after the North closed its borders to ward off COVID-19.
North Korea could easily possibly mobilize several hundred or even thousands of workers to Donbas if it decides to deploy the workers left behind in Russia, said Kang Dong Wan, a North Korean expert at Dong-A University in South Korea. .
It is not yet clear how lucrative Donbas would be for North Korea.
Russia is short of cash, battered by Western sanctions against its financial institutions and a wide variety of industries. North Korea probably has no interest in being paid in rubles due to concerns about the currency’s purchasing power, which bottomed out during the early days of the war before Moscow took steps to artificially restore its value.
North Korea could be willing to be compensated with food, fuel and machinery, an exchange that would also likely violate Security Council sanctions, Lim said.
Hong Min, a senior analyst at the South Korean Institute of National Unification, said North Korea may have bigger things in mind than short-term gains from labor exports.
The United States’ strategic competition with China and its confrontation with Russia have given North Korea breathing space as it rises to join Moscow and Beijing in a united front to counter American influence and build a multipolar international system. promote,” said Hong.
North Korea has already used the war in Ukraine to ramp up its weapons development, taking advantage of divisions in the Security Council, where Russia and China vetoed a US-backed resolution to tighten sanctions against North Korea in May because of this year’s renewed ICBM testing.
North Korea and Russia also face important policies.
North Korea has repeatedly blamed the United States for the crisis in Ukraine, saying that the West’s “hegemonic policy” justifies Russia’s military actions in Ukraine to protect itself.
Russia, meanwhile, has repeatedly condemned the revival of large-scale military exercises between the US and South Korea this year and accused its allies of provoking North Korea and increasing tensions.
Alexander Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, has backed up his dubious claim that the COVID-19 outbreak was caused by South Korean activists flying anti-North Korean pamphlets and other balloon material over the border.
Nam Sung-wook, a professor in the unification and diplomacy department of South Korea’s University in Korea, is one of the few experts to see labor exports begin soon.
Desperate to tackle its economic problems, North Korea could send small groups of workers to Donbas in the coming months on “reconnaissance missions” and gradually increase the numbers depending on how the war progresses, he said.
“The interests are aligned between Pyongyang and Moscow,” Nam said. “A hundred or 200 employees could eventually become 10,000.”