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 the country’s east
SEOUL, South Korea — 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 the country’s east.
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 Russia’s ambassador to North Korea used in a recent interview.
North Korea’s ambassador to Moscow recently met with envoys from two Russia-backed separatist territories in the Donbas region of Ukraine and expressed optimism about cooperation in the “field of labor migration,” citing his 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 Donbas would clearly run afoul of U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear and missile programs and further complicate the U.S.-led international push for its nuclear disarmament.
Many experts doubt North Korea will 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 will supply labor to Donbas when the fighting eases to boost its own economy, broken by years of U.S.-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 U.S. influence in Asia.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin has said that North Korean construction companies have already offered to help rebuild war-torn areas in 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 U.N. 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.