Letter From the Editors

This week marked a star turn for Russia’s oft-forgotten Far East, with Vladimir Putin spending several days there to host the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok before heading over to the Vostochny cosmodrome to host a North Korean delegation led by Kim Jong-un himself. Despite Russia’s need to increase trade with Asian countries that are not North Korea, it was the latter event that captured the imaginations of people at home and abroad.

And understandably so. Kim was taking his trademark armored train on his first post-COVID state visit. He brought with him a large coterie including not only top military and industry officials but, unprecedentedly, his sister and possible heir Kim Yo-jong. And what’s more, presumably to reassure the world that the shop is well minded even in the proprietor’s absence, the North Korean military launched two missiles into international waters off Japan.

It was Kim’s interest in missiles during the trip that seized the international public’s attention – or rather, both missiles and rockets, for which Russian uses the same term, rakety, with the clear logic that both use rocket propulsion systems. But while every army in the world has tactical rockets, only a few have strategic-capability missiles – that’s the logic of the English terms. Space launch vehicles, while conventionally called rockets, involve technologies that can be reapplied to world-destroying ICBMs, so you can see why people sat up when Putin announced from the spaceport, “That’s what we’re here for. The DPRK leader is very interested in rocket technology. They are venturing into space.”

But then Putin balked (sorry, Rocket Man). Russia is a signatory to sanctions against North Korea’s missile (and rocket) programs, and he followed up his meeting by saying that “Russia complies with all these limitations.” North Korea will not become an active belligerent in the Ukraine conflict, either. Conventional weapons supplies will most likely continue on the level agreed with Russian Defense Minister Shoigu back in July.

One issue that was on everyone’s minds during Kim’s last visit to Russia in 2019 was the status of North Korean labor migrants. However, as commentators wrote, “Putin avoided the issue of North Korean workers in Russia. They are supposed to leave Russia before the end of 2019 according to a UN Security Council resolution (as Washington insists), but are a major source of hard currency for North Korea.”

The theme was also conspicuously absent this time, even though Pyongyang’s currency problems haven’t gone anywhere, and Russia would certainly have an incentive to revive the pre-COVID worker program. The Economic Development Ministry is pointing to an “abnormally low” unemployment rate. Minister Maksim Reshetnikov says that this situation “certainly slows economic development and is not a plus at all. This is reflected in the exponential growth of salaries, which is not bad in general, except for the shortage of workers.” Small business advocate Dmitry Porochkin says that “the low unemployment rate was caused by a lack of younger workers,” and one must suppose that military mobilization is exacerbating the situation.

The Russian Far East, in particular, is feeling the labor crunch, right as it is becoming the axis of Moscow’s “pivot to Asia.” Speaking about the importance of this year’s EEF, the Valdai Club’s Timofey Bordachov says: “The main objectives of the forum from the very beginning have been the rise of the Far East as such and the coordination of government policy in this area.” However, he continues, “There are very few people living in the Far East, and over the years it has not been possible to find a radical solution to the problem of increasing the population.”

So, did Putin, who has hydrocarbon money he can’t spend and a labor shortage in Asia, find a “radical solution” at the Vostochny cosmodrome with Kim, who has manpower he can’t feed and a chronic shortage of cash? All we can say for now is that the pivot to the East is finally happening, and it’s already been full of surprises.