By Polina Nikolskaya and Katya Golubkova
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Commercial ventures planned between Russia and North Korea three years ago are not being implemented because of Pyongyang’s missile testing program, the Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East, Alexander Galushka, said.
Russia has been under international scrutiny over North Korea because it has taken a more doveish approach to Pyongyang than Washington, and Russian trade with North Korea increased sharply at the start of this year.
The United States government earlier this month imposed new North Korea-related sanctions that targeted Russian firms and individuals for, it alleged, supporting Pyongyang’s weapons programs and providing oil.
However Galushka, in an interview with Reuters, said Moscow was faithfully implementing the international sanctions regime on North Korea, and held up the stalled bilateral projects as an indication that Pyongyang was paying an economic price for its weapons program.
“Russia has not violated, does not violate and will not work outside the framework (of the resolution) that was accepted by the U.N. Security Council,” said Galushka, who also heads a Russia-North Korean Intergovernmental Commission.
Russian businesses discussed a number of projects with North Korea in 2014. But then North Korea conducted military tests, including some involving nuclear weapons, and the projects became difficult to implement, Galushka said.
One such project, called “Pobeda”, or “Victory,” would have involved Russian investments and supplies that could be exchanged for access to Korean natural resources.
“We told our North Korean partners more than once … that it hampers a lot, makes it impossible, it restricts things, it causes fear,” Galushka said, referring to the weapons testing.
Another joint project between the two countries is a railway link with North Korea, from the Russian eastern border town of Khasan to Korea’s Rajin.
It is operating but below its potential. The link could work at a capacity of 4 million tonnes a year, officials have said previously, but now it only carries around 1.5 million tonnes of coal per year, according to Galushka.
UN sanctions also prohibit countries from increasing the current numbers of North Korean laborers working in their territories.
According to Galushka, around 40,000 employees from North Korea worked in Russia. Mainly they are engaged in timber processing and construction.
Russian business is interested in access to the North Korea workforce, Galushka said, but the numbers will stay in line with what the sanctions permit.
He said 40,000 workers from North Korea “is a balance formed in the economy, neither more nor less.”
Bilateral trade between the two countries has been decreasing for the last four years, from $112.7 million in 2013 to $76.9 million in 2016, according to Russian Federal Customs Service statistics.
But it more than doubled to $31.4 million in the first quarter of 2017 in year-on-year terms. Most of Russia’s exports to North Korea are oil, coal and refined products.
Asked to explain why trade was rising if political issues were hurting commercial projects, a spokeswoman for Galushka’s ministry said in an email: “According to the latest data, there was an objective increase due to exports to North Korea, primarily oil products. But the export of oil does not violate the agreements of the UN countries in any way.”
The interview with Galushka took place before the U.S. imposed the sanctions targeting Russian entities and individuals for trading with North Korea.
Galushka’s ministry referred questions about the new sanctions to the Russian foreign ministry.
Maria Zakharova, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, told reporters Washington’s unilateral sanctions worsened tensions on the Korean peninsula, and that Russia is fulfilling its international obligations in full.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)