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Russia's Pacific Coast Economy Hurt By Sanctions Against North Korea

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump is working toward possible sit-down talks with the leader of North Korea. If those talks go well, they might point toward peace. But some diplomats are anxious, and it turns out some Russians are not happy at all. NPR's Lucian Kim reports.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: There was a time when North Korean leaders were almost regular visitors to Russia. In 2002, Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, took his armored train across the border to visit President Vladimir Putin, as captured in this propaganda film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: There's another memento of that visit in the Pacific port of Vladivostok.

(Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR BEEP)

KIM: A friendly receptionist at the Hotel Gavan takes me up to Room 615, where there's still a plaque saying, Kim Jong Il slept here. Those happy days are on hold for now, since Kim Jong Il's son seems more interested in meeting Donald Trump than Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin has taken a tough stance on North Korea's nuclear weapons program by signing onto the toughest U.N. sanctions yet. In his office a few steps from the Hotel Gavan, Vladimir Baranov is fuming about the new restrictions.

VLADIMIR BARANOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Baranov says that because of the sanctions, he has neither cargo nor passengers to transport. Last May, Baranov started running a ferry service between Vladivostok and the North Korean port of Rajin. He was hoping he'd find customers among the tens of thousands of North Koreans who work on Russian construction sites and farms, but now they'll have to leave, and his business is suffering.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in foreign language).

KIM: Among those migrant workers still here are the singers in Koryo, a North Korean restaurant right next to Vladivostok City Hall. That's where I meet Artyom Lukin, an international relations professor.

ARTYOM LUKIN: Russia currently has the best relationship with North Korea among the major powers. So even China, which is North Korea's only formal ally, has, frankly, problematic relations.

KIM: But Russia joined the sanctions reluctantly, Lukin says, and the North Korean workers will be missed.

LUKIN: They are regarded as highly qualified and highly dependable, highly disciplined. So if we lose them, it will deal a major blow to the local economy.

KIM: It will also deal a blow to the North Korean economy, which is the whole idea behind the sanctions.

IRINA TYAN: (Through interpreter) For North Korea, it's a business because all the laborers who work here pay their government so they can be here.

KIM: That's Irina Tyan, a businesswoman from Russia's ethnic Korean community who co-owns a farm together with the North Korean Consulate in Vladivostok. Tyan dismisses reports that North Koreans work in slavelike conditions. She says they just don't make the same demands as Russian workers, although they're under the strict control of their North Korean supervisors.

TYAN: (Through interpreter) They're afraid; that's clear. But still, they'll do anything to get here because they can go where they want, go shopping, buy whatever they want or need.

KIM: Tyan received a quota for 30 North Korean workers this year, but it was canceled because of the sanctions, and her last eight North Koreans are due to go home this month. If the sanctions aren't lifted by next year's planting season, she says she'll have to close the business. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Vladivostok.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'INDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.

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