The United States has called on Russia to comply with UN sanctions on North Korea, citing "deeply troubling" reports that Moscow has granted new work permits to North Korean laborers that are barred under the sanctions.
The calls from top U.S. diplomats on August 3 came a day after the Wall Street Journal reported that Moscow has allowed thousands of new North Korean laborers into the country and granted them work permits in what appear to be sanctions violations. Russia is denying the accusations.
Citing records from the Russian Interior Ministry and Labor Ministry, the Journal wrote that over 10,000 new North Korean workers have registered in Russia since September and a minimum of 700 new work permits have been issued to North Koreans in Russia this year.
The non-profit research organization C4ADS also recently reported that initial restrictions on new North Korean laborers set by both China and Russia -- where around 80 percent of North Korea's laborers work -- appear to have been loosened recently.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the reports on August 3 in calling on Russia to comply with the UN sanctions.
"We have seen reports that Russia is allowing for joint ventures with North Korean firms and granting new work permits to North Korean guest workers," Pompeo said as he visited Singapore. "If these reports are proven accurate, and we have every reason to believe that they are, that would be in violation" of UN sanctions, he said.
"I want to remind every nation that has supported these resolutions that this is a serious issue and something we will discuss with Moscow," he said. "We expect the Russians and all countries to abide by the UN Security Council resolutions and enforce sanctions on North Korea."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said the "credible reports of Russia violating UN Security Council resolutions on North Korean laborers working abroad are deeply troubling."
"Talk is cheap -- Russia cannot support sanctions with their words in the Security Council only to violate them with their actions," she said in a statement at the UN.
"Until we see the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea, there can be no easing of sanctions," Haley said.
The labor sanctions are a part of a broader series of sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council last year to eliminate important revenue streams that reportedly have been used to finance North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The labor sanctions specifically bar governments from issuing new work permits for North Korean workers, and require that current contracts for laborers be terminated by 2019.
Aleksandr Matsegora, Russia's ambassador to North Korea, denied Moscow had allowed any new workers to enter Russia, saying fresh documents had been issued only to laborers already based in Russia who were working under old contracts, Russian news agency Interfax reported on August 3.
Matsegora said the laborers granted work permits this year are allowed to work in Russia until November 29, 2019 because their work contracts were signed before the sanctions went into effect, Interfax reported. He said 3,500 new work permits have been issued to workers who signed contracts in Russia before November 29, 2017, Interfax reported.
Most of the money North Koreans earn abroad ends up in government coffers, the UN has said.
"It is estimated that North Korean laborers in Russia send between $150 milliion and $300 million annually to Pyongyang," a U.S. State Department spokesperson said on August 3. "Moscow should immediately and fully implement all the UN sanctions."
Call To Black List Bank
Also on August 3, the United States asked the UN council to add a Russian bank and two North Koreans working in Moscow to the UN's sanctions blacklist after the U.S. Treasury targeted them with sanctions.
The Treasury said it was targeting Moscow-based Agrosoyuz Commercial Bank with sanctions because it allegedly had conducted "a significant transaction" for Han Jang Su, the Moscow-based chief representative of Foreign Trade Bank (FTB), North Korea's primary foreign exchange bank.
The Treasury also slapped sanctions on Ri Jong Won, the Moscow-based deputy representative of FTB, and said both Ri and Han should be expelled from Russia.
At the UN, the United States is asking that the Moscow bank and the North Korean banking officials working in Moscow all be put on the UN's blacklist, which subjects them to a global asset freeze and travel ban.
Washington has been struggling to maintain international support for sanctions on North Korea since U.S. President Donald Trump made a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in April to work toward ridding the country of nuclear weapons.
So far, U.S. officials say North Korea has made little progress toward shutting down its nuclear and ballistic missile facilities despite several rounds of talks.
U.S. officials have said that sanctions violations are hurting their efforts to gain concessions from Pyongyang.
Last month at the UN, the United States charged that Pyongyang has already exceeded a limit on its imports of oil products imposed under the UN sanctions because of illegal transfers of oil to Korean ships on the high seas.
But Russia and China teamed up to block a U.S. demand that all further legal deliveries of oil products to North Korea be stopped in light of the alleged illegal oil smuggling.
Russia denies any involvement in the illegal smuggling, but Reuters has reported instances of North Korean ships leaving Russia with cargoes of fuel and heading for their homeland despite having told Russian authorities the fuel was headed to other destinations.
U.S. officials told Reuters that this ploy has often been used to undermine sanctions.