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North Korea is hinting that it is interested in sending construction workers to the Russian-controlled regions of Ukraine to help the Kremlin’s efforts to rebuild in the war-ravaged areas as its invasion of Ukraine enters into its seventh month.
Pyongyang’s ambassador to Moscow recently met with envoys from two Russia-backed separatist territories in the Donbas region of Ukraine and expressed optimism about cooperation in the “field of labor migration,” citing his country’s easing pandemic border controls.
The idea is openly endorsed by senior Russian officials and diplomats, who foresee a cheap and hard-working workforce that could be thrown into the “most arduous conditions,” a term Russia’s ambassador to North Korea used in a recent interview.
Rebekah Koffler, a former U.S. DIA intelligence officer focused on Russia and the author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America,” told Fox News Digital that Putin, from an optics standpoint, is attempting to show that Russia is not completely isolated and still has friends in the world despite stringent sanctions and pressure resulting from the invasion of Ukraine.
“From a practical standpoint,” Koffler said, “it makes sense for Putin to use these laborers because who else is going to go? Because these are risky conditions in Donbas and the Russian military is already having trouble recruiting people to go fight there.”
The talks came after North Korea in July became the only nation aside from Russia and Syria to recognize the independence of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway territories, further aligning with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine.
The employment of North Korean workers in Donbas would clearly run afoul of U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs and further complicate the U.S.-led international push for its nuclear disarmament.
Many experts doubt North Korea will send workers while the war remains in flux, with a steady flow of Western weapons helping Ukraine to push back against much larger Russian forces, but they say it’s highly likely North Korea will supply labor to Donbas when the fighting eases to boost its own economy.
Human rights groups have reported over the past several years on North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un shipping tens of thousands of his own impoverished citizens to Russian labor camps to generate cash for his regime.
A report issued in 2017 by the Seoul-based Data Base Center for North Korean Human Rights estimated that about 50,000 North Korean laborers are working low-paying jobs in Russia. They send at least $120 million every year to the regime in Pyongyang.
It is unclear what type of workers would potentially be sent to eastern parts of Ukraine to help Russia’s rebuilding effort, but Koffler told Fox News Digital that it is “highly likely” the work assignment will be “mandatory” for North Koreans who are chosen to go.
Associated Press contributed to this report