Russia plans to implement a United Nations resolution barring the use of North Korean laborers by gradually cutting off their visas, rather than an immediate deportation, a senior government official announced.
"No deportation as such is underway,” the Russian Interior Ministry’s Valentina Kazakova told lawmakers, according to state-run media. “In this particular case they are not responsible for any wrongdoing.”
U.S. officials have made the case that North Korean laborers working overseas amount to slaves of the regime, which confiscates much of the money they send home to finance its illicit weapons program. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution in December that demanded the workers return to their home country within two years, as part of a broader sanctions package designed to starve the regime of finances.
“Those whose visas expire take their leave,” Kazakova said. “The U.N. Security Council’s resolution is being implemented.”
That could put a significant crimp in the regime's finances, according to experts.
"If Russia is truly enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions and expelling North Korean workers I think that would initially be a positive sign,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Lisa Collins told Newsweek in response to initial reports. “If other countries also follow suit and expel North Korean workers this could cumulatively have a large effect on the total amount of money that the North Korean regime earns abroad.”
The U.N. settled on a two-year deadline, after debating a one-year timeframe. Accordingly, the policy Kavakova announced should allow Russia to come into compliance with the U.N. resolution, without immediately breaking the agreements with North Korea that brought the workers into the country.
The resolution passed after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson complained that Russia and China provided North Korea with a series of economic lifelines even as western officials tried to ramp up the pressure on the regime.
“Continuing to allow North Korean laborers to toil in slave-like conditions inside Russia in exchange for wages used to fund nuclear weapons programs calls into question Russia’s dedication as a partner for peace,” Tillerson said. “Similarly, as Chinese crude oil flows to North Korean refineries, the United States questions China’s commitment to solving an issue that has serious implications for the security of its own citizens.”
Russia's top diplomat defended the hiring of North Korean laborers, despite voting for the resolution restricting the practice. “[T]he North Korean workers aren't working in Russia in 'slave-like conditions,’” Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said during a Security Council meeting. “They're working on the basis of an intergovernmental agreement with the [regime] which guarantees their rights.”
Kazakova’s announcement coincides with the beginning of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, where North Korean athletes will also compete under a goodwill agreement struck by the two nations. Vice President Mike Pence is leading the U.S. delegation, in a trip more fraught with geopolitical significance than recent Olympic Games.
“And allow me to just assure you and the people of South Korea that the United States of America will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in our effort to bring maximum pressure to bear on North Korea until that time comes when they finally and permanently and irreversibly abandon their nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions,” Pence said in South Korea on Thursday.