Sanctions and Donetsk bring Moscow, Pyongyang together
Recent statements by a Russian diplomat and the leader of a Russian-backed separatist republic in Ukraine suggest Moscow and Pyongyang could be drawing closer economically under international sanctions.
Denis Pushilin, leader of the mostly-unrecognized Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), said in an interview with Russian state television on July 21 that his government would pursue reconstruction "alongside North Korea," and that the DPR is "interested" in North Korean resources.
Pushilin did not clarify what resources from North Korea the DPR was eyeing.
The main exports of the North's centrally planned economy are iron ore, anthracite coal and minerals, as well as agricultural and fisheries products, almost all of which go to China.
The North used to send workers on overseas projects to earn foreign currency, but sanctions passed by the United Nations Security Council in 2017 banned almost all of its main exports and mandated the repatriation of all North Korean workers by December 2019.
Russia's adherence to those sanctions appears increasingly doubtful as the country faces its own set of punishing multinational sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine.
Russia's envoy to North Korea in recent weeks has openly suggested that Moscow could seek to bolster economic cooperation with Pyongyang.
"Highly qualified, hardworking, and ready to work in the most difficult conditions, Korean builders will be an asset in the serious task of restoring social, infrastructural and industrial facilities [in the Donbas] destroyed by the retreating Ukronazis," Ambassador Alexander Matsegora told the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia on July 19, using a Kremlin term that falsely claims that the Ukrainian government is run by Nazis.
In early July, North Korea became the third state after Russia and Syria to officially recognize the DPR and the Luhansk People's Republic, the other Russian-backed separatist republic in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas, where most of the war's hostilities are currently taking place.
North Korea was one of only five states at the United Nations General Assembly to oppose a resolution calling for Russia to "immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders."
The other four opposing states were Russia, Belarus, Eritrea and Syria. The resolution passed with the support of 141 countries, while 35 abstained.
Pushilin hailed North Korea's recognition of the DPR as a "triumph of diplomacy" and expressed hope for "active and fruitful cooperation" with Pyongyang.
According to Matsegora, North Korea and the two separatist Dunbas republics have "wide prospects for bilateral cooperation," with the North particularly keen to upgrade its existing stock of Soviet-era manufacturing equipment, which was initially made at factories in eastern Ukraine.
"Our Korean partners are very interested in spare parts and units manufactured there and in updating their production base," Matsegora said.
One trade between the North and the DPR could involve North Korean magnesite in exchange for shipments of coking coal and wheat, according to Matsegora.
Kyiv severed relations with Pyongyang on July 13 after the latter recognized the breakaway republics.
In a statement uploaded to its foreign ministry website, Kyiv said Russia's appeal for North Korean recognition of the separatist republics was derived from Russia's lack of allies in the world "except for countries that depend on it financially and politically," and that Russia's international pariah status would only grow.
"The level of isolation of the Russian Federation will soon reach the level of isolation of the DPRK," said Ukraine's Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba in the statement, referring to the North by the acronym of its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]