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North Korea restores train service to Russia, boosting hopes for tourists — Radio Free Asia

After a four-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, passenger rail service between Russia and North Korea has been restored, with 41 Russian tourists taking the train to North Korea last week, according to Moscow’s customs service.

The news comes amid a report Monday from the Russian daily Vedomosti that President Vladimir Putin will visit North Korea sometime in the next few weeks. 

That would mark only the second time that Putin has visited the country, after a July 2000 trip – although Putin did meet with Kim Jong Un in September in the Russian far eastern city of Vladivostok.

The exact timing of the trip wasn’t clear, but Russia’s ambassador in Pyongyang, Alexander Matsegora, said the visit was being “actively prepared.” 

Putin is also planning to visit Vietnam soon, the report said.

During their meeting, Putin and Kim Jong Un may discuss restarting trade, strengthening economic ties and bringing in North Korean workers to address Russian labor shortages, Alexander Zhebin, a researcher at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Vedomosti.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un visit the Vostochny Сosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, September 13, 2023. (Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Kremlin via Reuters)

The train bringing the Russian tourists to North Korea departed from Ussuriysk, a Russian city about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Vladivostok, the Federal Customs Service of Russia wrote on the Telegram social media platform on June 6. 

“The first train with Russian tourists left for the DPRK through the Khasan checkpoint,” the service’s post said. “After a four-year break, Ussuri customs officers cleared the first passenger train for departure to North Korea.”

Last month, Primorski krai’s Gov. Oleg Kozhemyako announced at a meeting with a delegation from North Korea’s northeastern Rason region that passenger rail service between Vladivostok and Rason would soon resume, to the benefit of Russian travelers.

This announcement followed his statement in January that plans were in place to open passenger rail service within the year, and that he hoped any technical problems stalling the reopening would be resolved.

Russia and North Korea restarted tourism earlier this year, with 400 Russian tourists flying in by air between February and May, according to stats from the Primorsky krai government, which anticipates that tourist numbers will increase now that the passenger rail link has been restored.

Foreign workers

The restoration of service is expected to pave the way for North Korea to soon send large numbers of workers to Russia, Kang Dongwan, a professor at the South Korea-based Dong-A University in Busan, told Radio Free Asia. 

ENG_KOR_RUSSIA RAIL_06072024.2.jpg
Ethnic-Korean Chinese get back their passports as they board a Pyongyang bound train April 25, 2004, from Dandong station in China’s northeast Liaoning Province, China. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)

“Above all, Russia currently needs a large workforce for construction sites, and North Korea needs to send workers to Russia to earn foreign currency,” said Kang. 

“Currently, with regular flight routes in operation, the addition of a train route to the Primorsky Krai region means that large-scale personnel and resources will be able to move back and forth.”

Should North Korea send workers to Russia, however, it would be yet another violation of international nuclear sanctions, which state that all North Korean workers abroad were to have returned home by the end of 2019 and no new work visas should be issued.

But North Korea maintains overseas workforces in China and Russia, and has been known to get around sanctions by sending new workers on vocational or education visas.

Translated by Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong.

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