SEOUL, South Korea – Two months after he failed to win a badly needed relief from President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is traveling to Russia in a possible attempt to win his help as the US
There are no signs of a financial or humanitarian crisis in North Korea. But some observers say the sanctions, toughened over the past several years, are gradually drying up Kim's foreign currency reserves and he is desperate to find ways to bring in the hard currency. His propaganda service is already saying that North Koreans can survive with only "water and air."
Russia, along with China, has called for easing the sanctions, though both are members of the U.N. Security Council, which has approved a total of 1
It's still unclear how much help Kim could get from Putin. Along with China, Russia is not likely to openly escape sanctions and face diplomatic friction with the United States. More than 90% of North Korea's foreign trade has gone through China, with which it shares a long, porous land border.
Analyst Go Myong-Hyun of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul said Kim's Russia trip, the first and North Korean leader since 2011, may have been planned long before the February breakdown of the second summit between Kim and Trump in Vietnam. Go said North Korea and Russia had wanted to discuss economic cooperation if the summit had resulted in a relaxation of sanctions.
What will still be on the agenda is a request by Kim for food aid. In February, North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, issued an unusual appeal for "urgent" food assistance. Several Korean officials have blamed the shortage of bad weather and sanctions
Analyst Cho Bong-hyun of Seoul's IBK Economic Research Institute said North Korea needed more than 1 million tons of food aid, so it would want Russia to provide hundreds of thousands of tons of corn, flour and other foodstuff. Russia could send North Korea food, but mostly in a secret way, Cho said.
Kim will also raise the issue of thousands of North Korean workers in Russia, who must return home along with other North Korean workers worldwide by the end of this year under the UN
"There is a high possibility that Kim will ask Putin to be flexible on the issue as it is related to the inflow of dollars," said analyst Shin Beomchul of the Asan Institute. He said North Korea may seek to persuade Russia to overlook North Korean visitors with short-term non-employment visas engaging in illegal work.
In May last year, South Korea's Unification Ministry said North Korea sent an estimated 50,000 workers aboard, mostly to China and Russia. Most work at factories, construction sites, lumber camps and restaurants.
After Kim failed to obtain sanctions relief from Trump in Vietnam, he called for national unity under the banner of the United States. self-reliance to surmount the sanctions. His state media called self-reliance "the treasured sword," and a term formerly used to refer to his nuclear weapons.
"It is necessary to sweep away the whirlwind of sanctions by hostile forces," Kim said in a rare speech
The Vietnam summit collapsed after Trump rejected Kim's calls for the end of five of the 11 sanctions that he said impeded his country's civilian economy in return for partial steps towards nuclear disarmament. They include a ban on key exports such as coal, textiles and seafood; and significant curtailing of oil imports; and the repatriation of North Korean overseas workers by December
These sanctions, adopted one by one since 2016 when Kim launched a series of nuclear and missile tests, are causing more pain than the six previously imposed sanctions that largely target North Korea's weapons industry.
The new sanctions especially affect North Korea's official foreign trade. According to China Customs figures, China's imports from North Korea dropped by 88% and exports to the North by 33% in 2018. South Korea's central bank said North Korea's economy contracted 3.5% in 2017 from a year earlier
North Korea monitoring groups in Seoul say the prices of rice and other key commodities on hundreds of markets in North Korea remain largely unchanged. South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers last month that it has not detected any signs of mass starvation.
Some experts say Kim has probably used some of his foreign currency reserves to import goods from China to maintain price stability. Some say North Korea's huge trade deficit may have been offset by illicit border trade with China that is likely to thrive again with lax enforcement of the U.N. sanctions. Others say North Korea is trying to locally produce items it had imported.
"It's certain that North Korea is releasing a large amount of money," Go said. "When its money runs out, it will make an emergency situation and step up calls for sanctions relief."
There is no independently confirmed data on the size of North Korea's foreign currency reserves. Go said some economists estimate them at $ 5 billions. Outside speculation varies over how long North Korea can withstand the impact of sanctions without major economic and social chaos
Cho speculates North Korea will probably hold out for the next three to five years. But other say it could make a drain on its foreign currency reserves sooner, by December or next year at the earliest.
Whether the sanctions will eventually force Kim to give up his nuclear program is unclear. Kim considers his nuclear weapons a stronger security assurance than any non-aggression promises the U.S. could offer. In his April 12 parliamentary speech, he described the sanctions as a plot to disarm North Korea before attempting to overthrow his government
If there is an indication of a humanitarian crisis in North Korea, many experts say China will likely make large-
Thae Yong Ho, a former minster at the North Korean Embassy in London who defected to South Korea in 2016, said in a recent blog post that there are rumors among North Chinese residents Xi Jinping will visit Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, in May.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing in Beijing has contributed to this report
He said the North Korea's hard-line stance will continue for the time being if it gets help from Russia and China.