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International relations

Moscow plays the North Korea card

Pyongyang ties may serve as diplomatic leverage and a source of manpower

MOSCOW -- Russia is seeking to deepen ties with the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seemingly unconcerned by raised eyebrows in the international community. 

Russia maintains diplomatic ties with North Korea, and continues to support it, even as the country has isolated itself from most of the international community by repeatedly conducting nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests. In fact, Russia is now seen by many experts as closer to the North than Pyongyang's traditional ally, China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have two motives: He may be trying to use his ties with North Korea as a diplomatic card in his dealings with the U.S. He is also eager to bring in North Korean labor to help with the development of the Russian Far East. Moscow has recently begun talks with Pyongyang on allowing more North Koreans to work in the country.

According to Russia's Internal Affairs Ministry, the two countries held an intergovernmental meeting on migrant workers in Pyongyang on Wednesday. During the talks, the Russians laid out a medium- to long-term plan for accepting more North Korean workers.

Migrant workers from North Korea live in this building in Khabarovsk, Russia.

Representatives from state-owned Russian Railways also visited North Korea in late January to negotiate expansion of rail links between the two countries. The two sides reached a deal under which more North Korean railway engineers will receive training at a Russian university.

Business as usual

According to Russian officials, Moscow did not halt oil exports to the North after the latter conducted test-launches of ballistic missiles in February.

Even China, which has been the North's closest ally for many years, is taking a firmer stance toward the country, suspending imports of North Korean coal in a decision that is expected to last through the end of the year.

With China keeping its distance, Russia has become all the more important to Pyongyang. In February, the Korean Central News Agency, the government mouthpiece, named Russia at the top of the list of countries to which Kim had sent lunar New Year greeting cards.

Russia's defiance of many countries' moves to distance themselves from the North appears to be a diplomatic strategy aimed at countering the U.S., which is looking to bolster its strategic position in the Asia-Pacific region.

Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, on Thursday criticized Washington, saying the deployment of the U.S. anti-missile system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense had hurt regional stability.

Experts believe Moscow hopes to use its increased influence with Pyongyang as a negotiating card as it deals with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump's team is increasingly alarmed at the North's nuclear tests and missile launches.

Vasily Mikheev, a deputy director at Russia's Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said he believes Moscow will maintain its pro-Pyongyang stance as a diplomatic leverage unless the U.S.-Russia relations improve.

According to Russian government statistics, the number of North Koreans in Russia with work permits has doubled in the last five years to over 40,000. Many experts believe the actual number of migrant workers is far higher when illegal workers are included.

A local official in Primorsky Krai, a territory in Russian Far East that shares a border with North Korea, said the country's diligent, tireless workers are seen as essential to moving infrastructure projects along in the Russian Far East, including those in Khabarovsk and Vladivostok.

According to some analysts, Putin's government is also seeking to strengthen economic ties with South Korea, again using its Pyongyang ties as a bargaining chip. Putin is hoping relations with Seoul improve after the country's May presidential election.

Left-leaning candidate Moon Jae-in is seen as the favorite to succeed the ousted Park Geun-hye and may review the deployment of THAAD. If that happens, Moscow's ties with the North could help entice Seoul into taking part in Russian-backed power and railway projects involving the three countries.

But analysts warn Russia's North Korea gambit runs the risk of harming its image in the international community and further alienating Europe and the U.S.

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