Room 615 in the Hotel Gavan in Vladivostok is a cramped two-room “business suite” with green wallpaper and carpeting. But when the former North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il traveled to Russia’s Pacific coast in 2002, the humble excavations served as his presidential suite.
A plaque on the side of the box-shaped hotel recalls the visit of Kim Jong Il, the father of North Korea’s current ruler, Kim Jong Un. Before his death in 2011, Kim Sr. made three trips to Russia in his famous slow moving armored train.
Although North Korea’s border with Russia is only 18 kilometers long, it has served as an important link with the outside world since the end of World War II when the Kremlin helped build the secluded communist state. After taking office in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin worked hard to establish transportation and energy links across North Korea to South Korea’s lucrative markets.
“Russia currently has the best relations with North Korea among the great powers,” said Artyom Lukin, professor of international relations at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok. “Even China, North Korea’s only formal ally, has frankly problematic relations. So Russia is probably the country that North Korea trusts – or, more correctly, least suspicious of.”
But when Pyongyang continued to ignore warnings about abandoning its nuclear weapons program last year, Moscow had no choice but to join China in signing the latest round of United Nations sanctions in September.
At the same time, the Kremlin sees an opportunity to act as a mediator between North Korea and the United States, said Lukin. And so it followed the sanctions that were intended to hit North Korea’s economy by limiting its oil imports, banning textile exports – and requiring Russia to expel around 30,000 North Korean migrant workers.
In his second-floor office in a shabby building a few steps from Hotel Gavan, Vladimir Baranov was angry about the new restrictions.
In May, his company InvestStroyTrest started a ferry service between Vladivostok and the North Korean port of Rajin, a 12-hour trip along the coast.
“Of course, with these sanctions, which even prohibit wheelchairs, I have no cargo space,” said Baranov. “I’m not working right now because there is no freight.”
His company’s ferry, a North Korean ship called Man Gyong Bong, is now stranded in Rajin after Vladivostok port officials refused to dock it on suspicion of carrying sanctioned goods – an allegation Baranov denies in court.
Baranov is still hoping to find passengers among Russian and Chinese tourists, although he may soon forget about the thousands of North Korean migrant workers in the region who claim to have to leave Moscow.
Most of these workers work on construction sites and farms in the Russian Far East, although some are employed in the North Korean restaurants in Vladivostok. In the Koryo restaurant next to the town hall, young North Korean women in traditional costumes are blaring sentimental Korean melodies over the karaoke system.
“They are great workers who work day and night,” said Valentin Pak, a Russian entrepreneur and politician whose own ancestors emigrated from Korea five generations ago. “You are sorely missed.”
Pak said it would be difficult to replace the North Koreans and is skeptical of comments from regional officials that workers from India or Central Asia could replace them.
Labor shortages have been a serious problem since Russia began colonizing its remote Pacific territories in the mid-19th century – and workers from neighboring Korea have been a logical choice to fill the void. During the Soviet era and well into the 1990s, North Koreans worked under brutal conditions in Siberian logging camps operated by the North Korean government under an agreement between Moscow and Pyongyang.
Even today, the Pyongyang government benefits from its citizens going to Russia for work, and that is exactly the rationale behind the restrictions on North Korean workers.
“It’s a business for North Korea because all the workers who work here pay their government to be here,” said Irina Tyan, a businesswoman who runs a farm with the North Korean consulate in Vladivostok. Like Pak, she belongs to the ethnic Korean community of Russia, which is well integrated into Russian society.
Tyan’s North Korean partners invested $ 2 million in a 10,000-acre farm that grows soybeans, corn, wheat and oats. By last year the company employed 10 Russians and about 20 North Koreans.
North Korean workers were making 20,000 rubles ($ 320) a month plus room, board and clothing, Tyan said, although she did not pay them directly but through her North Korean government overseer.
She contradicts reports that North Koreans are working in Russia under slave-like conditions. They just don’t make the same demands as Russian workers – like an eight-hour workday with lunch and smoke breaks – and are under the strict guidance of their North Korean guardians, Tyan said.
“You’re scared, that’s clear,” she said. “But they will still do anything to get here because they can go where they want, go shopping, buy what they want or need. They will not say it out loud, but it is clear that they will continue to live here and want to work “.”
After their contingent of 30 North Korean workers was cut due to the sanctions, the last eight North Koreans from Tyan are due to go home this month. If the sanctions are not lifted by next year’s planting season, she will have to sell the business.
“Of course, nobody knows what’s going to happen next,” said Tyan. “Maybe they’ll lift the sanctions tomorrow, maybe in a year, maybe never.”
One Russian businessman who remains optimistic is Ivan Tonkikh, who operates RasonConTrans, a freight terminal in Rajin, North Korea that is jointly owned by Russian Railways and the North Korean state.
Despite being exempt from recent UN sanctions, Tonkikh is struggling to find partners willing to export coal through Rajin. While business is idle, he wants to convince the UN to bring humanitarian shipments to his port.
Tonkikh is downplaying Moscow’s economic levers on Pyongyang, but adding that the cargo terminal is an investment in a better future.
“Rajin is just the beginning. It is the first section of a restored Trans-Korean railroad,” said Tonkikh. “We call Rajin the ‘short path to consensus’ on the Korean peninsula.”
Should this dream ever come true, goods from South Korea will one day travel by rail to Europe through Russia.
Kim Jong Il’s epic train journeys to Russia may have been a harbinger of what is to come.
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