Russia Discusses Using North Korean Construction Workers To Rebuild Donbass

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Russia’s ambassador to Alexander Matsegora, has said that North Korean workers could be hired to help with the reconstruction of Donbass, a region heavily damaged in on-going Ukraine-Russia fighting since 2014. The region is ethnically Russian and is now under Russian military control and support.

North Korea has a large army of contract construction workers that are often deployed overseas, most notably on sites in Mongolia and on Southeast Asian based Belt & Road Initiative projects. They are routinely sheltered from the local population and live and work on site. The practice has been banned since 2019 on the back of US sanctions, however remains covertly common.

However, the recruitment of North Korean workers to Russia is not new, and has been a regular occurrence both under Soviet and more recent times. Most North Korean workers are from Pyongyang; although local recruitment companies prefer workers from urban areas, as they are believed to adapt better to life in other countries. By 2006, more than 10,000 North Koreans entered Russia on work visas annually, largely in the Russian Far East. They are closely monitored by North Korean security forces to prevent defections; many report being paid in scrip rather than legal currency. In 2009, the North Korean government was estimated to earn roughly US$7 million each year in foreign exchange through their workers in Russia. In 2011, Kim Jong-il made a visit to Russia in which he negotiated for more North Korean workers to be sent to Russia. Up to 70% of the US$40 to US$100 per month wages earned by the workers are reported to be taken away as “loyalty payments” by the North Korean government, although upon returning home after several years work many North Korean workers overseas can retire to a life of relative comfort back in their home country for their efforts.

North Korea is one of the few States, along with Syria, and other Russian breakaway republics South Ossetia and Abkhazia to have recognized the legitimacy of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which self-proclaimed independence from Ukraine earlier this year, as Crimea did in 2014. Ukraine and the West state that this independence was falsely imposed upon them by Moscow, while the Russian position is that these areas wished to return back to Russia having faced ethnic and cultural intimidation from Kiev.

Matsegora said that “Highly qualified and hard-working Korean builders, who are capable of working in the most difficult conditions, could help us restore our social, infrastructure and industrial facilities”. Matsegora also suggested that North Korean factories and power stations built during the Soviet era could use equipment built in the Donbass. This would contravene a UN ban, imposed in late 2017, on North Korea acquiring industrial machinery, electronic equipment, and other items.

The political situation is complicated as Russia signed off on the original UN 2019 charter prohibiting the use of North Korean labour overseas, however the Kremlin will view its relationship with North Korea as a sign of changing times and a result of US imposed sanctions upon it upsetting the previous balance. Western media will regard the use of North Korean labour by Russia in Donbass as a violation of a UN treaty. The main lesson here is that if the United States wishes to retain cooperation at the UN over issues such as North Korea, it is unwise to then target cooperative allies in doing so by subsequently taking sides against them in territorial disputes elsewhere.

Bilateral trade between the two countries is miniscule, averaging about US$14 million per annum, with the two having agreed to implement a ‘phased’ resumption of bilateral trade, which fell to close to zero from 2020 after the Korean side shut their borders against Covid. Both Russia and China do support North Korea with various aid packages, and a new railway station has appeared on the North Korean side of the Russian border suggesting that trade ties are expected to increase.

For Russia, the issue is simply the reconstruction and resettlement of Donbass in the fastest, most efficient, and cost-effective manner possible. The onus will also be on Russia to illustrate how effectively support from Moscow in the Donbass can regenerate a region under its control as opposed to as yet undetermined European reconstruction assistance to rebuild Ukraine. For North Korea, the overriding principle is the receipt of much-needed foreign income – leaving the West once again scratching their heads over how sanctions can be overcome so quickly, while resulting in further security and financial challenges elsewhere.

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