“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” President Trump said yesterday in an Oval Office interview with Reuters. “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting,” the president added. Trump is correct when he accuses Moscow of being complicit in the Kim regime’s efforts to evade sanctions.
Although Moscow voted for the latest round of UN sanctions restricting North Korea’s access to petroleum, coal, and other key revenue sources, recent reports suggest there has been a noticeable increase in shipping traffic between North Korean ports and the Russian city of Vladivostok, located roughly 80 miles from the North Korean border.
In September 2017, Treasury’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing, Marshall Billingslea, shared in a congressional hearing that both Russian and Chinese ports are allowing North Korean ships to offload coal in clear violation of UN sanctions. Reuters also revealed that Russian-flagged vessels directly engaged in ship-to-ship transfers as recently as October 2017. As President Trump insinuated, ongoing trade between North Korea and Russia is providing a lifeline to the Kim regime.
In addition, the Kremlin continues to permit Russian firms’ employment of North Korean laborers, who work in slave-like conditions. There are currently between 50,000 to 120,000 North Korean workers that Pyongyang deploys overseas to generate revenue for the regime. In October 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that Russia hosts up to 40,000 of these workers. North Korea uses the proceeds from such labor for its weapons programs, likely as much as $2 billion. UN sanctions passed in December 2017 allow 24 months for member states to end employment of North Korean overseas laborers programs.
In 2017, the Trump administration designated Russian entities and individuals for supporting North Korean WMD and ballistic missile procurement, and for using U.S. dollars to sell petroleum and petroleum products to Pyongyang. There is much more the administration can do to hold Russia accountable, however.
First, it should use the Countering of America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which mandates sanctions on firms and individuals that employ North Korean overseas slave workers. Additionally, Executive Order 13810 provides the president with broad authority to designate both North Koreans and non-North Koreans enabling North Korean trade of sanctioned and prohibited goods. The Trump administration should utilize this authority to target Russia’s shipping sector, since evidence shows it is complicit with North Korean sanctions evasion. The administration could also target Russian port service providers who directly or indirectly provide port services to ships engaged in illicit behavior.
To ramp up the pressure on Moscow, the administration should also aggressively target Russian banks who process North Korean-linked illicit transactions. China remains the dominant player supporting Pyongyang, but Moscow has backfilled in some areas, blunting the effectiveness of the “maximum pressure” campaign. The Trump administration should make clear to Russia that it will pay a price for helping North Korea to evade sanctions that Russia itself approved.
Boris Zilberman is deputy director of congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Mathew Ha is a research associate. Follow them both on Twitter @rolltidebmz and @Matjunsuk.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.