Seoul, South Korea — As the war in Ukraine enters its seventh month, North Korea is hinting at 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 foresee cheap and hard-working labor that could be dumped under the “most difficult conditions”, a term used by the Russian ambassador to Korea of the North in a recent interview.
North Korea’s ambassador to Moscow recently met with envoys from two Russian-backed breakaway territories in Ukraine’s Donbass region and expressed optimism for cooperation in the “area of labor migration work,” citing the relaxation of his country’s pandemic border controls.
The talks came after North Korea in July became the only nation besides Russia and Syria to recognize the territories’ independence, Donetsk and Luhansk, aligning itself more with Russia over the dispute. in Ukraine.
The employment of North Korean workers in the Donbass would clearly run counter to UN Security Council sanctions imposed on the North for its nuclear and missile programs and would further complicate the international push led by the United States to its nuclear disarmament.
Many experts doubt North Korea will send workers as the war continues, with a steady stream of Western weapons helping Ukraine fend off much larger Russian forces.
But they say North Korea is highly likely to provide labor to Donbass when the fighting subsides to boost its own economy, shattered 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 of strengthening cooperation with Russia and China, another ideological ally, in an emerging partnership aimed at reducing American influence in Asia. .
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin said North Korean construction companies had already offered to help rebuild war-torn areas in the Donbass and that North Korean workers would be welcome if they came.
This is a sharp break with Russia’s position in December 2017, when it backed new UN Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, forcing states members to expel all North Korean workers from their territories within 24 months.
Russia now appears eager to undermine those sanctions as it faces a US-led pressure campaign to insulate its economy from its aggression in Ukraine, said Lim Soo-ho, 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,” Lim said. “A large number of North Korean construction workers came to Russia in previous years, and the demand for their labor was high because they were cheap and known for their quality work.”
Prior to the 2017 sanctions, labor exports were a rare legitimate source of foreign exchange for North Korea, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the government.
The US State Department earlier estimated that around 100,000 North Koreans work overseas in government-organized jobs, mostly in Russia and China, but also in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and in South Asia.
Civilian experts say the workers earned between $200 million and $500 million a year for the North Korean government while pocketing only a fraction of their wages, often working more than 12 hours a day under constant surveillance by security guards. their country.
While Russia sent home some North Korean workers ahead of the UN deadline in December 2019, an uncertain number remained, continuing to work or remaining stuck after the North closed its borders to fend off COVID- 19.
North Korea could easily mobilize possibly several hundred or even thousands of workers in the Donbass if it decided to use 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 the Donbass would be for North Korea.
Russia is cash-strapped, battered by Western sanctions targeting its financial institutions and a wide range 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 early in the war before Moscow took steps to artificially restore its value.
North Korea may be willing to be compensated with food, fuel and machinery, an exchange that would likely also violate Security Council sanctions, Lim said.
Hong Min, a senior analyst at South Korea’s Institute for National Unification, said North Korea may have more important things on its mind than short-term gains from labor exports.
“The United States’ strategic competition with China and confrontation with Russia have given North Korea respite as it prepares to join Moscow and Beijing in a united front to counter American influence and promote a multipolar international system,” Hong said.
North Korea has already used the war in Ukraine to accelerate its weapons development, exploiting divisions in the Security Council, where Russia and China have vetoed US-sponsored resolutions to toughen sanctions against North Korea for its relaunched ICBM tests this year.
North Korea and Russia also agree on key policies.
North Korea has repeatedly blamed the United States for the Ukraine crisis, saying the West’s “hegemonic policy” justifies Russia’s military actions in Ukraine to protect itself.
Russia, meanwhile, has repeatedly condemned the resumption of large-scale military exercises between the United States and South Korea this year, accusing the allies of provoking North Korea and escalating tensions.
Alexander Matsegora, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, backed his dubious claim that his COVID-19 outbreak was caused by South Korean activists who flew anti-North Korean leaflets and other documents across the border with balloons.
Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University’s unification and diplomacy department in South Korea, is one of the few experts who sees labor exports starting soon.
Desperate to solve its economic problems, North Korea could send small groups of workers to the Donbass on “reconnaissance missions” over the next few months and gradually increase the number according to the evolution of the war, a- he declared.
“Interests align between Pyongyang and Moscow,” Nam said. “A hundred or 200 workers could eventually become 10,000.”