(UPDATE) SEOUL: As the war in Ukraine stretches into its seventh month, North Korea is hinting at its interest in sending construction workers to help rebuild Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine.
The idea is openly endorsed by senior Russian officials and diplomats, who foresee a cheap and hard-working workforce that could be thrown into the “most arduous conditions,” a term Russian Ambassador to Pyongyang Aleksandr Matsegora used in a recent interview.
His North Korean counterpart Sin Hong-chol recently met with envoys from two Russia-backed separatist territories in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and expressed optimism about cooperation in the “field of labor migration,” citing his East Asian country’s easing pandemic border controls.
The talks came after North Korea in July became the only nation aside from Russia and Syria to recognize the independence of the territories, Donetsk and Luhansk, further aligning with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.
The employment of North Korean workers in the Donbas would clearly run afoul of United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs and further complicate the US-led international push for its nuclear disarmament.
Many experts doubt North Korea would send workers while the war remains in flux, with a steady flow of Western weapons helping Ukraine to push back against much larger Russian forces.
But they say it’s highly likely North Korea would supply labor to the Donbas when the fighting eases to boost its own economy, broken by years of US-led sanctions, pandemic border closures and decades of mismanagement.
The 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 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 the Donbas, and that North Korean workers would be welcomed if they come.
That’s a clear break from Russia’s position 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 expel all North Korean workers from their territories within 24 months.
Russia now seems eager to undercut 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 postwar rebuilding has real merit,” Lim said. “Large numbers of North Korean construction workers came to Russia in previous years, and demand for their labor was strong because they were cheap and known for quality work.”
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Author: Agence France-Presse