In breakaway Abkhazia, a loophole for North Korean workers amid beaches and Soviet relics

In breakaway Abkhazia, a loophole for North Korean workers amid beaches and Soviet relics

access_time2019-10-21 08:30:07

Early each morning, before the sun warms the Black Sea beaches, bands of North Korean workers set out for their shift at construction sites, their lunches dangling in thin plastic bags.


It’s also a convenient place to sidestep U.N. sanctions that demand the expulsion of all North Korean guest workers worldwide by late December.

Russia and China, which have hosted the lion’s share, signed the resolution two years ago with some reluctance.


But tiny Russia-backed Abkhazia — firmly outside the U.N. family — offers Moscow a place to stash some of the North Korean workers rather than ship them home. For Russia, there is a strategic play at hand.


The Kremlin hopes the small cadre of workers tucked away in Abkhazia will help win some more goodwill with Kim Jong Un’s regime as Moscow tries to strengthen its influence in Asia, analysts say.


Around 400 North Koreans — mostly men with wives and families back home to support — have been relocated to this subtropical strip of land, with many in the main city, Sukhumi. Their nights are spent in an abandoned Soviet holiday resort, surrounded by date palms and decaying mosaics of Lenin. 


By day they are building apartment blocks and pharmacies and laying railway tracks in a region still pockmarked by the secessionist conflict of the early 1990s when Abkhazia, backed by Moscow, broke away from Georgia. 

Abkhazia is part of a constellation of separatist enclaves stretching across the former Soviet domain, from a breakaway slice of Moldova in the west to quasi-states in the Black Sea region in the east. For Russia, they are footholds to bypass international norms and sanctions, and even provide an off-the-grid financial system. The breakaway states are recognized by only a handful of pro-Russian countries such as Venezuela and Syria.


About 10,000 North Korean workers remain in Russia — down from a high of about 40,000 — and Moscow has promised to send them home by a Dec. 22 deadline.

The 400 North Korean workers in Abkhazia are just a blip among what was once about 100,000 worldwide, sending home $500 million each year in remittance, according to U.S. estimates. But it is Moscow’s way of keeping a lifeline open for Pyongyang, analysts say.


Russia’s Foreign Ministry “scrupulously fulfills the obligations stipulated by the international sanctions regime,” spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told The Washington Post. “As for the hiring of migrant workers from North Korea in Abkhazia, it is advisable to address this issue to the relevant state or their employers.”


While Abkhazia likes to present itself as an independent republic, that is far from the reality. A quick stroll through central Sukhumi, where the newly built, sprawling Russian Embassy twinkles in the sun, shows who has sway over Abkhazia’s affairs.


Earlier this year, President Vladi­mir Putin welcomed North Korean leader Kim to Russia for his inaugural visit, a meeting designed by both to send Washington the message that there are other players when it comes to dealing with denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. 


But in recent months, tensions have cropped up between Russia and cash-strapped North Korea. 


Thousands of North Korean boats have been illegally fishing for squid in Russia’s Pacific waters, even resulting in a fatal exchange of gunfire and the summoning in September of Pyongyang’s chargé d’affaires, Chin Jeong Hyup, to the foreign ministry in Moscow. After a North Korean vessel opened fire in September on a Russian patrol boat, injuring three guards, the Russians returned fire, killing a North Korean fisherman.


Once Moscow recognized Abkhazia as independent in 2008, cash from Russia flooded in. The United Nations and Western nations still see Abkhazia as part of Georgia. 

North Korean overseas workers have subsidized the Kim regime and its nuclear program for years. But new U.N. sanctions directly target the worker program.


Abkhazia is also keen to develop economic ties with other Russia-connected states shunned on the global arena, such as Syria and the Moscow-backed breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine. 


A few months after she was invited to Pyongyang, a group of North Korean officials visited Abkhazia, where they sampled the local wine, kiwis and mandarin oranges. 



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