Russian-backed Separatist Republics Recognized by DPRK as Russia Expresses Interest in Using North Korean Laborers

As the Russian-Ukrainian War drags on into the Summer of 2022, the North Korean foreign ministry published an announcement that North Korea will recognize the Russian-backed breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, going on to state in official state media that the North Korean foreign ministry expressed the will to develop state-to-state relations with those countries in the spirit of independence, peace and friendship. This move was roundly condemned by Ukrainian President Zelensky and Dmytro Kuleba, Minister for Foreign Affairs.  They went on to state that the Russian Federation will soon join the North Koreans in their status as an isolated international pariah state. The recognition was capped off by the North Korean Ambassador to Russia, Sin Hong Chul, meeting with his counterpart Olga Makeeva from the breakaway People’s Republic of Donetsk being presented with documentation ratifying the recognition between the two peoples.

Russian Ambassador to North Korea in Pyongyang (Russian Embassy FB)

The Russian embassy in the DPRK posted on their Facebook page naming two individuals, Y. Nikonorova and V. N. Deinego, who will serve as the ambassadors of their respective republics to the DPRK.

The North Korean regime while not a major trade partner compared to China maintain a cordial relationship with the Russian government. The former leader of North Korea Kim Jong-Il met with Russian leaders and repeatedly focused on growing trade and other ties.  As the North Koreans join the illustrious club of those recognizing the LPR and the DPR regimes alongside Bassar Al Assad’s Syria. The DPRK’s goal is most likely to cement its relationship with Putin’s Russia which could increase possible aid and military assistance. It is yet to be seen if Russia’s embattled President Vladimir Putin will reciprocate this sentiment and respond to North Korea’s long held requests to provide new advanced weapon systems. 

The North Korean regime has little need to abide by being recognized by the international community. Establishing relations with these breakaway republics provides few downsides to the regime already facing a wide variety of international sanctions. There is little chance that we’ll see more materiel assistance and it is unlikely we’ll see North Korean troops and tanks loaded onto the Trans-Siberian railway headed to the fields of the Donbas. But these efforts do serve to demonstrate that the DPRK will never miss an opportunity to use an international crisis to draw attention to North Korea and by extension the North Korean regime and their exploits. The Russians have already stated how they would exploit the import of North Korean labor which was exposed in the Russian Far East by investigations by VICE News back in 2011. 

Sin Hong Chul the DPRK’s ambassador meets with the DPR’s ambassador to Moscow (DPR Official Telegram)

This was supported in a piece by the Russian news outlet Izvestia which laid out possible reasons beyond the recognition of what the North Koreans stand to gain from their decision, for example: “Firstly, highly qualified, hardworking and ready to work in the most difficult conditions, Korean builders will be a very serious help in solving the problems of restoring social, infrastructure and industrial facilities destroyed by the retreating Ukronazis.”  Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora explained that the North Koreans would be extremely interested in soviet era spare parts that are still able to be produced in DPR and LPR factories. As these parts would assist in keeping aged and dilapidated North Korean factories operational. DPRK would also be interested in general trade goods such as grains and fossil fuels but the North Korean economy has little to offer besides raw materials and the labor of its people.

While the feasibility of Russia using North Korean labor remains to be seen there is little doubt that Pyongyang would be willing to ship their citizens to an active war zone to serve as forced labor a continent away. These statements expressed by such a high-ranking individual simply show how far the Russian Federation has sunk in terms of who they are willing to cooperate with and in terms of how open they are to exploiting the captive people of North Korea.

The United States government responded to these developments with Ned Price, U.S State Department spokesperson, addressing the issue during a 20 July briefing. Responding to a question about whether the Russian government had violated sanctions imposed on the North Korean regime the question of DPRK laborers was raised. Price sidesteped the question noting that the status of the possible laborers would be left to the Ukrainians; “the Donbas, eastern Ukraine, belongs to Ukraine and Ukraine alone. Decisions about who should be there, decisions about projects that should be ongoing there – those are decisions for the Ukrainian Government, not for any other government.” Meaning that in the event of any North Koreans being sent to these areas would be under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian government.

What the world now has to contend with is a Russia that is willing to not only exploit the resources of an occupied region devastated by an aggressive war of conquest, going against the fragile peace in Europe that was tested and strained during the Cold War, but also willing to capitalize on these advances by deepening cooperation with one of the most repressive and condemned nations on the planet.