North Korea Inches Closer to Pro-Russia Separatists in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un (L) before a m
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Envoys for North Korea have apparently increased contact with Russia and its proxy separatist organizations in Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” in the months following the escalation of Moscow’s eight-year invasion of the eastern European country, the Pyongyang news site NK News observed Thursday.

North Korea does not formally recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as countries – only Russia, its proxy regime in Syria, and the Georgian separatist region, Abkhazia, do. Pyongyang, a totalitarian communist state, does enjoy support from Russia on the international stage, including Russia using its veto powers at the United Nations General Assembly to protect North Korea from further sanctions.

Dictator Kim Jong-un’s apparent move to bring North Korea closer to Russia could potentially move the country slightly out of the orbit of its top ally, China, and help bolster both Kim’s economy and Vladimir Putin’s lackluster national market, though most public cooperation between the two states currently appears to be in the realm of diplomatic support. The consequences of North Korea potentially becoming the third state on the planet to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk as countries are not predictable, though they will likely not include a wave of other nations following suit.

Donetsk and Luhansk collectively constitution the Donbas region of Ukraine, which borders Russia. Russia illegally colonized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, in the south of the country, in March 2014. At the same time, significant evidence suggests that Russia armed and otherwise supported ethnic Russian separatists in the Donbas, fueling a civil war that began that year and became an international war with the formal entry of Russian troops into Ukraine in February.

In announcing the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as countries that month, Putin claimed the concept of the country of Ukraine “was completely created by Russia” and Ukraine lacked “stable traditions” of being a sovereign entity.

The Donetsk separatists revealed that North Korea’s ambassador to Russia, Sin Hong Chol, had met with representatives of both Donetsk and Luhansk in Moscow in May.

“The meeting was devoted to consultations on formats and mechanisms for further interaction,” an official statement by the “Donetsk People’s Republic” read in part. “Particular attention was paid to the discussion of the real state of affairs in Donbass, as well as the importance of disseminating objective and reliable information about the situation.”

The separatists reportedly told Pyongyang’s envoy that they had “gratitude for the desire to build and intensify mutual cooperation.” The statement did not mention the potential of North Korea recognizing either entity’s sovereignty.

NK News noted Thursday that the visit is part of a growing trend of contact between Moscow and Pyongyang that may indicate an increasing willingness on Russia’s part to engage with North Korea. North Korea, under the eternal strain of its failed communist system and recently admitted coronavirus crisis, may be open to enhancing ties with any country seeking to do business, it continued.

“The string of meetings and expressions of intent to cooperate indicate not only a revival of DPRK-Russia ties in a way not seen since the start of the pandemic,” NK Pro contributor Anthony Rinna observed in the NK News article, “but also a greater willingness on Russia’s part to entertain North Korea in a way that shows less concern for maintaining an appearance of being a responsible actor.”

He predicted that North Korean workers may soon find jobs in Donetsk and Luhansk.

NK News noted that extensive evidence suggests that Russia allows North Korean laborers into the country despite a ban on doing such business with Pyongyang passed in the Security Council in 2019. North Korea’s communist regime is currently under the strictest sanctions regime in the world, a product of the administration of former American President Donald Trump convincing Pyongyang allies, Russia and China, not to veto sanctions in the aftermath of North Korea’s last illegal nuclear weapons test in 2o17. A year later, the Russian government announced it would expel 10,000 North Korean workers to comply with sanctions, and studies on the latter country’s economy found that sanctions had cut its trade volume in half. By the end of that year, however, reports indicated that China and Russia were at the forefront of massive sanctions evasion allowing the Kim regime to stay afloat.

North Korea state newspaper Rodong Sinmun – one of the only legal media outlets North Korean citizens may consume, all of which are government-run – has largely avoided informing the public about the ongoing war in Ukraine. It has, however, consistently published articles touting the allegedly ironclad friendship between Pyongyang and Moscow. Most recently, last month, Rodong Sinmun announced that Kim Jong-un had sent personal celebratory greetings to Putin to celebrate Russia Day.

“Noting that the Russian people have achieved great successes in accomplishing the just cause of defending the dignity and security of their country and its right to development,” Rodong Sinmun paraphrased Kim as saying, “while braving all sorts of challenges and hardships under the guidance of the president, the message said that the Korean people extend full support and encouragement to them.”

Russia is one of only three foreign countries Kim has visited as dictator, alongside Singapore and China.

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