The roughly thousand North Korean workers who remain in Russia do not constitute a violation of international sanctions on the DPRK, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) insisted on Thursday, amid reported criticism from UN member states about Moscow’s implementation of UN resolutions.
The statement, issued by the Russian foreign ministry, comes in response to a previously-undisclosed letter by Germany’s permanent mission to the UN on behalf of 28 member states reportedly raising questions about the country’s “diligence” in enforcing sanctions.
Resolution 2397, approved by the Security Council in December 2017, mandated that member states repatriate all North Koreans earning currency in their territory by the end of 2019.
But Russia’s MFA last week admitted that around a thousand North Korean laborers remained in the country’s territory, stressing that logistical issues were preventing authorities from repatriating them.
Those revelations accompanied statistics from the country’s interior ministry suggesting thousands of DPRK nationals continued to travel to Russia on student, tourist, and work visas.
The Russian foreign ministry on Thursday rejected the suggestion that this constituted an oversight on the part of the Kremlin, accusing Germany and other member states of interpreting Resolution 2397 in a “distorted” way.
“In particular, students and trainees, athletes and tourists, as well as North Korean workers abroad whose employers are individuals and legal entities of third countries, are included in this category [of North Koreans that should be sent home] without any reason,” the statement said.
“According to the authors of the appeal,” it continued, the UNSC measures apply to “North Korean citizens located on the territory of other States, regardless of their occupation.”
“This reading contradicts the meaning of the eighth paragraph of UN Security Council resolution 2397,” the statement argued. “It actually refers to the repatriation of North Koreans who work and earn income in the jurisdiction of a particular state within a specified time frame.”
The statement also accuses Germany — which has chaired the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea since December — of overstepping its role, noting that it and many of the signatory member states are not permanent members of the Security Council.
“Germany, like any other country, has a national position on certain issues of world politics,” the statement said.
“Nevertheless, the role of the Chairman of the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee dictates certain self-restrictions, assuming equidistance, impartiality and, in general, special responsibility for creating an atmosphere of trust and conditions for finding consensual solutions.”
The issue of North Korean laborers has become a thorn in the side of Russian authorities in recent months, with Moscow even seeking to overturn the ban at the UN just days before it came into effect on December 22.
A senior Russian diplomat earlier in the month said that almost all of the 11,490 North Koreans reported to have been working in the country last year had been sent home and had stopped receiving income — but that “logistic” issues were preventing the full number from being sent home.
These logistical issues are now likely exacerbated by North Korea’s recent steps to almost completely close its borders, amid growing fears about the spread of the novel coronavirus — a move that has also seen a temporary halt on close-to all travel into and out of the country.
But one expert said Russian claims would need to be taken with a pinch of salt, and that Thursday’s MFA statement could represent an attempt to move the goalposts and prepare for a scenario in which those workers may stay full time.
“On the one hand, one could interpret this as a cynical method of tacitly approving the presence of North Korean citizens abroad under the pretext of fulfilling purposes other than those for which they have received visas,” Anthony Rinna, an expert on DPRK-Russia relations and an NK News contributing analyst, said.
“There have been insinuations that DPRK citizens have been receiving visas for non-labor purposes, only to take up paid employment abroad,” he added.
But Moscow is also simply “stating an objective fact,” Rinna argued — a position reflective of Russia’s more flexible interpretation of international sanctions.
“Students, athletes and the like are not covered under UN sanctions, and as such their presence abroad does not constitute a violation of international law,” he said.
“In this regard, given that Russia has, over the years, set itself up as part of a Sino-Russian alternative to the US’s maximum pressure campaign, Moscow is hoping North Korea will continue to have opportunities to mitigate its international isolation.”
Edited by James Fretwell