Russia won’t be part of ‘strangling’ North Korea, says US should do its part to start talks

The mounting pressure on North Korea over its rocket and nuclear programs is reaching a point at which there is a risk of strangling the country, Russia’s deputy Foreign Minister has said, warning that Russia does not support such a tactic.

Pyongyang labors under harsh economic sanctions, imposed for its continued defiance of the UN Security Council, which banned North Korea from developing nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. The level of pressure, however, is approaching a ‘red line’, after which an “economic strangulation of DPRK” would start, Russian Deputy FM Igor Morgulov said.

“Russia will not be part of this,” he told Interfax news agency. “We consider this counterproductive, since economic pressure alone will not lead to the outcome we seek, the resolution of the nuclear problem in the Korean Peninsula. Also, there is a humanitarian dimension, since sanctions hurt ordinary people in the first place, which we have to take into account.”

Morgulov reiterated Moscow’s position, that the US and South Korea should stop joint military exercises as a gesture of goodwill meant to win a pledge from North Korea to pause its nuclear and missile tests. Such a ‘double-freeze’ would allow Washington and Pyongyang to negotiate a resolution to the security crisis, the deputy FM explained.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this week that the US is ready to negotiate with the North Koreans “anytime they'd like to talk”, but insists that such contacts must be unconditional and aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenals. It rejects the idea of halting exercises in the region and, instead, has ramped them up, with one of the biggest drills launched this week, including Japanese participation.

Moscow for its part will not be hasty in taking action against North Korea, Morgulov promised. For example, it won’t kick out guest workers from North Korea already who are employed in Russia, but would rather halt new hiring, as ordered by the UN.

“North Korean workers, who signed their contracts before the sanctions resolution was passed [September 11], will continue to work in our country until their contracts expire,” he said. “We will not take any rash decisions. There will be no immediate expulsions or cancellations of the standing contracts.”

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Russia employs an estimated 35,000 workers from North Korea, mostly in border areas, in industries like lumber production and construction. The practice was targeted by the UN because the workers are paid in hard currency, which the government in Pyongyang thoretically might later use to acquire products for its military projects on the black market.

Morgulov said Moscow and Pyongyang, despite their differences on the nuclear issue, remain engaged through a number of diplomatic channels. “Out interstate relations with DPRK are regular. We are neighbors and have a wide spectrum of channels for dialogue, through our foreign ministries, on cabinet level, through the legislature… We have a big interstate commission for cooperation which deals with economic projects.” He added the ongoing visit of a Russian military delegation to Pyongyang is one example of how the two nations remain in touch amid the crisis.