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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
A high-level delegation of North Korean officials flew to Vladivostok on Monday, the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang said, in a visit which will see them take part in the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) and continue ongoing talks with local counterparts on economic cooperation.
The trip follows a week-long tour of Far East Russian cities by a North Korean foreign ministry delegation last week to discuss trade relations and issues involving DPRK laborers in the run-up to a UN sanctions deadline requiring their expulsion from Russia by this December.
It also comes after months of back-and-forth exchanges following up on major intergovernmental economic meetings in March and the April summit in Vladivostok between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This week’s delegation is led by vice-premier of the Cabinet in charge of trade Ri Ryong Nam, an official with extensive experience on the Russia portfolio and who last attended the EEF as then-head of the Ministry of External Economic Relations (MEER) in 2015.
He is joined this week by Deputy Director of the foreign ministry’s First European Department Kim Yong Ho, and MEER vice minister Ri Kwang Gun, who has been actively involved in trade and cooperation talks with Russia since last year’s EEF.
The Russian embassy said the delegation is set to hold talks on the sidelines of the EEF with top local government leaders who have also been deeply involved in bilateral economic discussions and who featured heavily in April’s Kim-Putin summit.
These include Primorye Governor Oleg Kozhemyako, head of the Ministry for the Development of the Far East (MDFE) Alexander Kozlov, and deputy prime minister and presidential envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Yury Trutnev.
Kozhemyako is set to meet with Ri’s delegation on Monday upon arrival in Vladivostok, the report said, which will meet with other Russian officials on Thursday.
The report added that the Russian side “hopes [the visit] will give impetus to the development of not only Russian-Korean trade and economic cooperation, but also practical cooperation in multilateral formats.”
Ri Ryong Nam previously chaired the DPRK-Russia Intergovernmental Committee (IGC) for Cooperation in Trade, Economy, Science, and Technology, last holding talks in that capacity in October 2015 following his participation in the EEF that year.
The current co-chairs for the IGC are MEER minister Kim Yong Jae and MDFE minister Kozlov.
Kozlov notably served as Kim Jong Un’s primary host during his trip to Vladivostok in spring, later traveling to Pyongyang in June to discuss some of the outstanding joint economic projects between the two countries.
He is expected to once again discuss with his North Korean counterparts this week a planned cross-border road bridge along the narrow DPRK-Russia border and an internet-based “trading house” to sell various goods from both countries to their respective markets.
The two IGC co-chairs signed agreements during Kozlov’s June trip to Pyongyang, according to a July report from the Russian embassy — after which another participant this week, Ri Kwang Gun, held follow-up IGC talks in Moscow in July.
Ri previously traveled to Vladivostok in February to prepare for the year’s IGC meetings and discuss the planned joint economic projects.
But a more pressing bilateral issue involves the thousands of DPRK workers who continue to work and reside in Russian territory and who are required under UN Security Council resolution 2397 passed in late 2017 to be sent back to North Korea by December 22 this year.
Russia reported to the UN in March that the country was complying with the measure in sending over half of the workers home, but that 11,490 DPRK nationals remained in the country.
Both sides have continued, however, to voice support for a solution which would see North Korean laborers remain in the country beyond that deadline, regardless of the unlikelihood for the U.S. to sign off on sanctions relief at the UN amid stalled talks with Pyongyang.
Director of the foreign ministry’s First European Department Kang Song Ho — whose deputy Kim Yong Ho is heading to the EEF this week — also appeared to discuss the topic in a meeting with the governor of the Far East Amur region last week.
According to the Amur region government’s official website, Kang expressed hopes in reviving cooperation “in the fields of agriculture, construction, and the logging industry,” indicating the two sides are working on contingency plans for the workers.
The EEF meetings this week will serve as the highest-level exchange between the two countries since a mid-August trip to Pyongyang by Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov.
The 5th annual EEF will be held from September 4-6 on the campus of Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU), where Kim and Putin met in April.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Eastern Economic Forum, edited by NK News