Experts say Russia is turning to sanctioned North Korea for breaking the rules

Russia and North Korea, both plagued by punitive economic sanctions, appear to be looking for ways to help each other while thumbing their noses at the rules-based order embraced by the wider international community, according to experts.

Five months after invading Ukraine, Russia is hit by successive rounds of sanctions from the United States and its partners.

The latest came on Tuesday when the UK announced new sanctions against Russian officials. A few weeks earlier, on June 28, the United States had targeted 70 entities, many of them in the Russian defense industry.

The European Union issued a sixth round of sanctions that included the Russian central bank, senior officials and oil exports, and on July 17 proposed a seventh round of sanctions that will impact Russian gold and a list extended range of dual-use goods and technologies.

Failure to comply with sanctions

Short of allies, Moscow began to seek new economic relations.

Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora said in an interview with the Russian daily Izvestia on July 19, Moscow could hire North Korean workers to rebuild Ukraine’s war-torn Donbass region, now largely under Russian control. Pyongyang has expressed interest in importing goods made in the region, according to The Times of Moscow.

“It just shows how [Russian President Vladimir] Putin remains isolated. Now he has to turn to North Korea,” John Kirby, White House National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said the same day.

VOA’s Korea Service contacted the Russian Embassy in Washington and the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to seek comment on Matsegora’s remarks, but did not receive a response. The service also contacted North Korea’s mission to the UN to seek confirmation of Matsegora’s remarks but received no response.

The UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member, passed a resolution in December 2017 banning member states from hiring North Korean workers in response to Pyongyang’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile the previous month. .

Greedy for foreign currency, Pyongyang had long sent North Korean workers to Russia to earn money to send home. The United States estimated that 30,000 North Korean workers were in Russia before the UN issued sanctions. Many stayed in Russia and worked on student or travel visas. In a report submitted to the UN in March 2020, Russia acknowledged that 511 North Koreans remain in the country.

“Moscow has violated sanctions against North Korea from the time Russia passed them,” said Anthony Ruggiero, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. But Matsegora’s remarks indicate an outright willingness to “blatantly defend such violation”, according to Bruce Klingner, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said: “Now that Russia itself is under sanctions, it obviously has no reason to comply with restrictions.”

A renewed cooperation

Experts see mutual benefits in the growing cooperation between Russia and North Korea, both of which are willing to break the rules and flout norms set by the United States and like-minded countries.

Patricia Kim, an East Asia researcher at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said: “Both states see clear parallels in each other’s situations and share a common cause in opposing sanctions and the “Western order” led by the United States”.

She continued: “It is very likely that we will see a deepening of diplomatic, economic and perhaps even military ties between North Korea and Russia in the coming months, as the two states face isolation. global.”

Harry Kazianis, chairman of the Rogue States Project, which bills itself as a bipartisan national security think tank, said the cooperation “wouldn’t be surprising because Moscow and Pyongyang are so isolated that they would try to work together from all sides. possible ways”.

Once friendly relations between Moscow and Pyongyang soured after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the war in Ukraine has brought them closer again, analysts say.

Shortly after the outbreak of war in February, North Korea defended the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In March, along with Belarus, Eritrea and Syria, Pyongyang voted against a UN resolution demanding that Russia end the invasion.

On July 14, ahead of Matsegora’s remarks, Pyongyang recognized the independence of two Russian-backed breakaway regions – the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine’s Donbass region.

Five days later, North Korea’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying its relations with Moscow were “reaching a new strategic height”.

“Weakening of the liberal democratic order”

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics program at the nonprofit research and analysis organization CNA, said Matsegora’s remarks show that “Russians are focused on weakening the liberal democratic order, how the international community is structured to support the US national interest, from Russia’s point of view.”

He added that Russia and China “are going to cut out pieces of the international community” like North Korea “that really don’t want to have to deal with the United States and all of its rules and regulations” and put them under its shadow. .

Russia has also looked to Iran for weapons to use in the war against Ukraine, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said July 12.

Patrick Cronin, chairman of security for Asia-Pacific at the California Hudson Institute, said: “Russia is keen to show that it retains the initiative in its war against Ukraine, and to do so it needs any partner willing to resist shunning by the international community.”

He continued, “Aid from one pariah state to another pariah state encapsulates the transactional relationship.”

In the future, Cronin said, Pyongyang could provide “cheap labour” while Moscow would provide energy and food. He added, “There is potential for a stronger military technology partnership that can help North Korea with its growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.”

North Korea is believed to have completed preparations for its seventh nuclear test.

Samuel Wells, a Cold War researcher at the Wilson Center, said: “The expression of this interest in economic cooperation can be a trial balloon,” but it “certainly indicates a limit to [the use of] penalties for politics.”

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