| SEOUL/VLADIVOSTOK, Russia
SEOUL/VLADIVOSTOK, Russia May 3 When North
Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent Lunar New Year greetings this
year, the first card went to Russian President Vladimir Putin,
ahead of leaders from China and other allies of the isolated
country, according to its official news agency.
Some academics who study North Korea argue Kim could be
looking for Russia to ease any pain if China, which accounts for
about 90 percent of North Korea's trade, steps up sanctions
against the isolated country as part of moves to deter its
nuclear and missile programmes.
U.S. President Donald Trump lavished praise on Chinese
President Xi Jinping last week for Beijing's assistance in
trying to rein in Pyongyang. A day later, U.S. Secretary of
State Rex Tillerson pressed the United Nations Security Council
to impose more sanctions to further isolate Pyongyang.
There is no sign of any sustainable increase in trade
between Russia and North Korea, but business and transport links
between the two are getting busier.
A new ferry service starting next week will move up to 200
passengers and 1,000 tonnes of cargo six times a month between
North Korea and the Russian port of Vladivostok.
Shipping data on Thomson Reuters Eikon shows there has been
a recent steady flow of oil tanker traffic from Vladivostok into
North Korean east coast ports.
Last Thursday, five North Korean-flagged oil tankers had
loaded up at Vladivostok-area ports and identified North Korean
ports as their destination. It was not known what products they
Earlier this year, Russian government officials visited
Pyongyang to discuss more cooperation in rail transport,
according to media reports. A Russian-built railway link between
the Russian eastern border town of Khasan and the North Korean
port of Rajin has been used to carry some coal, metals and
various oil products.
"North Korea does not care about China's pressure or
sanctions because there is Russia next door," said Leonid
Petrov, a North Korea expert at Australia National University.
"Pyongyang has been playing off Beijing and Moscow for half
a century, letting them compete for the right to aid and
influence North Korea."
Russia, especially Vladivostok, is also home to one of the
largest overseas communities of North Koreans in the world, and
they send home tens of thousands of dollars in much-needed hard
currency each month.
Speaking at the United Nations last week, Tillerson called
on states to sever diplomatic and financial ties with Pyongyang
and suspend the flow of North Korean guest workers. The Security
Council has not yet agreed on any course of action.
While Russia has not indicated it will oppose U.N. sanctions
or seek to dilute them, its ties with the United States are
fraught, which could complicate its joining any U.S.-led
initiative on North Korea.
Trump and Putin spoke in a telephone call on Tuesday and
discussed North Korea, among other issues, both sides said.
There was no word of any agreement.
Samuel Ramani, a Russia expert at Oxford University, said
support for the Pyongyang regime could bring economic benefits
for Moscow. It would demonstrate Russia was "a loyal partner to
anti-Western regimes facing international isolation and
sanctions", he said.
"As Russia has close economic links with other countries at
odds with the West, like Iran, Venezuela and Syria, this
symbolic dimension of the Russia-North Korea relationship has
The United States is calling for an embargo in oil sales to
North Korea, which imports all its fuel needs. China, North
Korea's main supplier, is unlikely to agree because that would
be potentially destabilising for the Pyongyang regime, but it
may impose curbs on the trade, experts say.
China exports about 500,000 tonnes of crude and 270,000
tonnes of products each year, oil industry sources in China say.
Russia, the other major supplier of oil to North Korea, exported
about 36,000 tonnes of oil products in 2015, the latest year for
which figures are available, according to U.N. data.
Russia has already taken over the supply of jet fuel to
North Korea after China halted exports two years ago, according
to the industry sources in China.
Russia is also the source of foreign exchange for North
Korea, mostly from Vladivostok.
The city of 600,000 people, just about 100 km (60 miles)
from the border with North Korea, is home to thousands of North
Koreans who mainly work on construction or do home renovations.
A city web site advertises "Korean Professional Contractors" and
says they work "Cheaply and Fast".
One North Korean man, who works as a handyman, told Reuters
he was obliged to hand over a portion of his income - $500 –
to the North Korean state each month. Thin and in his 30s, he
did not disclose his monthly income, but said he charged 4,000
roubles (about $70) for a day’s labour.
The man said he had worked in Russia for 11 years, leaving
his wife and daughter back home whom he only saw on rare visits.
Like all North Koreans, he wore a badge on his lapel bearing
the portrait of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung.
"It's better here than in North Korea," said the man, who
did not want to be named. "It's a very difficult life there.
Here you can make money."
But the most symbolic upturn in ties between Russia and
North Korea is the start of regular trips of the Mangyongbong
ferry from Monday between Vladivostok and the North Korean town
Vladimir Baranov, the head of Vladivostok-based
Investstroitrest company, told Reuters his company had chartered
the Mangyongbong and would be the general agent for the ferry
route. The ageing boat used to ferry tourists between Japan and
North Korea, but Tokyo banned its visits in 2006 as part of
sanctions against Pyongyang.
An editorial in Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper described
the ferry service to Russia as "a move that puts a damper on
international efforts to strengthen the encirclement of North
Korea aimed at halting its nuclear and missile development."
Still, despite the differences with the United States and
the existing links with North Korea, experts say Russia is
unlikely to sharp increase trade with Pyongyang because of its
low foreign exchange reserves and general unreliability.
"All trade with North Korea has to be subsidised," said
Andrei Lankov, a Russian North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin
University. "I do not see the Russian government spending its
dwindling currency reserves to support the regime they despise
and see as incurably ungrateful, and also prone to risky
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Natalia Chumakova,
Gleb Gorodyankin, Alexander Winning and Andrew Osborn in Moscow,
Steve Holland in Washington,; Michelle Nichols at the United
Nations, Chen Aizhu and Josephine Mason in Beijing; Editing by