President Donald Trump on Wednesday accused Russia of helping North Korea skirt international sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Trump told Reuters in an interview. “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.”
Trump’s rare criticism of Russia came as he commended China for largely complying with international sanctions that are aimed at ramping up pressure on Pyongyang by further isolating the regime that has threatened the US and its allies in Asia with nuclear attacks.
His comments appear to reference reports that Russian tankers have helped refuel North Korea with shipments at sea and follows allegations from US officials that Russia has been lax in its implementation of UN Security Council sanctions.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who returned to the US from a trip to South Korea and Japan on Tuesday, said it is clear that the Russians and Chinese continue to aid North Korea despite additional sanctions.
“The Russians are definitely providing supplies to the North Koreans and so are the Chinese. It is very clear both the Russians and Chinese are violating the additional sanctions,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters Wednesday.
Duckworth also highlighted that China and Russia continue to import North Korean “slave labor.”
“The two countries that consume the most North Korean slave labor are China and Russia,” she said.
Trump also declined for the second time in as many weeks to confirm whether he has communicated with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader. He reaffirmed that he is open to sitting down with Kim, but expressed doubt that direct talks would help “solve the problem.”
“I’m not sure that talks will lead to anything meaningful,” he said. “They’ve talked for 25 years and they’ve taken advantage of our presidents, of our previous presidents.”
Trump’s comments came as South Korea and North Korea have engaged in the most substantive direct talks in years, which have led to plans for the two countries to march together in the Olympics under a united flag.
Trump’s criticism of Russia followed a warning from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday that both Russia and China must tighten their enforcement of existing sanctions.
“We cannot abide lapses or sanctions evasions. We will continue to call attention to and designate entities and individuals complicit in such evasive actions,” Tillerson said during a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, about confronting the North Korean threat.
Alleged Russian oil shipments to North Korea have undermined the intended effect of UN sanctions targeting North Korean energy supplies. Gas prices in the country reportedly dropped in December, with academic and news reports suggesting that increased Russian exports were responsible.
In late December, a US-led UN Security Council Resolution added the toughest restrictions on North Korea to date, banning exports of industrial equipment, machinery, transportation vehicles and industrial metals to North Korea.
It also would have required countries using North Korean laborers to send them back home no later than 12 months from the adoption of the resolution — a specific Tillerson focus, as these workers send significant amounts of money home to North Korea. But Russia stepped in, issuing strenuous complaints, and as a result the deadline was pushed back to 24 months.
Russia officially has some 40,000 North Korean workers, and possibly more, many of whom work in construction. Some analysts worry that Moscow will find loopholes for them to stay, citing “humanitarian” reasons.
Russia has also stepped in to give North Koreans their second point of internet access to the outside world as China has helped further isolate the regime.
Pyongyang had been reliant on China for a connection to the outside world, but in October, the North Korea monitoring project 38 North reported that Russia’s state-owned company TransTeleCom had provided Kim with a new internet connection. The outreach happened just as the US campaign to cut North Korea’s access to the rest of the world was gathering steam.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also offered vocal support for the North Korean regime. Speaking at a September forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok, Putin condemned what he called Pyongyang’s “provocative” nuclear tests, but he said he understood North Korean concerns and offered a warning to Kim about what happens when leaders give up their nuclear weapons.
North Koreans “know exactly how the situation developed in Iraq,” Putin said, pointing to the US invasion of Iraq in spite of the country abandoning its nuclear weapons program.