Russia-DPRK economic relations

From Dr. Leonid Petrov in the Asia Times:

Russia cooperation with North Korea
Since the early 2000s, overall relations between Russia and the DPRK have been improving. The DPRK’s importation of refined oil from Russia saw its first increase in 2002-2003 (from $20 million to $96 million) and was caused by the beginning of the US-DPRK nuclear confrontation and the subsequent demise of the international Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization project that was to construct a light water reactor nuclear power plant in North Korea.

During 2004-2005, petroleum trade between Russia and North Korea grew from $105 million to $172.3 million. Until the six-party talks produced their first results, in the list of Russia’s exports to the DPRK, oil products dominated at 63%. Rampant corruption in both countries also let a trickle of Russian oil to be smuggled to North Korea unaccounted for.

In 2006, Russia was the DPRK’s third-largest trading partner after China and South Korea and absorbed 9% of the total $3.18 billion spent by the North on imports (approximately $286 million). The Kremlin’s approval of international sanctions against the former communist ally was accompanied by the curtailment of trade with the North. At the time of North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006, Russia’s trade statistics showed that exports of petroleum had dropped 91.1% compared to the same period of the previous year.

The pragmatic mood in bilateral relations prevails, and these days Russia delivers oil and food to North Korea only in accordance with its obligations associated with progress at the six-party talks. This year, Russia has already delivered 100,000 tonnes of fuel oil to the DPRK in two batches and, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin, a top Russian envoy to the six-party talks, will deliver another 100,000 tonnes by October 2008. In June, the Russian government announced it would provide 2,860 tonnes of flour to the DPRK. According to an official KCNA news agency report, this food aid arrived at the border city of Sinuiju in the DPRK’s northern Pyongan province in early July.

Recently, for the first time in the post-Soviet era, North Korea saw a major Russian investment. In the city of Pyeongseong, the Russian auto plant KamAZ opened its first assembly line, specializing in the production of medium-size trucks named “Taebaeksan-96”. Although less than 50 trucks were assembled in 2007, this cooperation became an important milestone in the development of bilateral relations. While the project doesn’t violate United Nations sanctions on North Korea, it shows Moscow’s drive to expand its influence in the country. Ironically, the more trucks assembled the heavier North Korea’s dependence on imported fuel, engine oils and other petrochemical products.

The importance of the DPRK’s Rajin-Seonbong special economic zone to Russia’s national interests continues to grow. The state-run monopoly OAO Russian Railways is currently upgrading its railway connections with North Korea in Khasan-Tumangang, investing at least 1.75 billion roubles (US$72 million) into this project, and plans to participate in an ambitious plan to rebuild a trans-Korean railway. By connecting Rajin (and the rest of northern Korea) to its Trans-Siberian railroad, Russia hopes to benefit form the transit of South Korean and Japanese cargo which could be sent via its territory to Central Asian and European markets. Pyongyang seems to endorse these plans and other Russian initiatives, but does not commit any financial resources.

Eighty percent of overall bilateral economic trade between Russia and North Korea consists of cooperation, barter and investment-in-kind between the regional areas. The most active Russian regions trading with the DPRK are Eastern Siberia and the Far East. Maritime province (Primorsky Krai) itself exports to North Korea more than $4 million worth of refined oil per year. There are no oil fields in Maritime province and oil has to be borrowed through a chain of federal bureaucratic structures from the oil-rich areas of Eastern Siberia. Instead of money, the local governments agree to receive the labor of North Korean workers.

North Korean laborers in Siberia and the Far East were common under the Soviet system and they are still visibly present. In 2004, the Russian Federal Immigration Service issued 14,000 visas for foreign laborers, of whom North Koreans numbered 3,320 in 2005 and 5,000 in 2006. Since the DPRK has no other way to pay in goods or services, its government started paying for oil imported from Russia by dispatching thousands of laborers at zero cost. Following strong demand from local companies, just in 2006 regional authorities of Primorsky Krai agreed to issue an extra 5,000 working visas to North Koreans. This openness is contrary to local government policy that normally restricts the entry of labor from China.

DPRK citizens are sent to Russia to work as woodcutters and builders but some have also managed to find work in the agricultural and marine industry. Through the presence of these laborers, Russia has enjoyed a partial repayment of the DPRK’s post-Soviet debt through North Korean workers being contracted to work in mines and lumber mills in Russia’s Far East.

The wages they are able to make in Russia are far greater than what they would make at home. However, the foreign worker quota is set not by provincial governments but by Moscow, which often tries to put a stop to these programs due to the complexity of the matter. Part of this opposition stems from the fact that the North Korean workers in Russia still fall under DPRK laws and, therefore, are subject to intrusive supervision.

Among the most difficult but negotiable issues in the way of Russia-North Korea cooperation remains the problem of external debt. During the Soviet era, the DPRK incurred a debt of approximately $8 billion, which Pyongyang still owes to Moscow but cannot repay. This debt remains a stumbling block in most negotiations on new aid and development programs. However, this debt can potentially make trilateral Russian-Korean relations closer and stronger.

In January 1991, soon after the opening of diplomatic relations with South Korea, Moscow received $3 billion from Seoul in the form of a three-year loan. The collapse of the Soviet Union left this loan largely unpaid. The new Russian government in the 1990s provided South Korea with armaments worth $150 million to be counted as payment in kind for the remaining debt. In 2003, after bilateral negotiations on this issue were completed, part of this Russian debt was canceled and the remainder was rescheduled to be paid over the next 23 years.

Taking into account its own debts to the South, Russia could easily write off a significant portion of North Korean debt. To resolve this question, a certain agreement between all three parties is needed. To engage in a mutual and reciprocal round of debt cancelation, Russia might choose to see the North and the South as one country. Such an agreement would have unblocked the road for broader cooperation between Russia and the two Koreas, and simplified Russia’s energy cooperation with China and Japan.

The full article is worth reading here:
Russia is key to North Korea’s plight
Asia Times
Leonid Petrov


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