Vientiane’s North Korean restaurants still open despite sanctions
A dozen North Korean restaurants are operating in Laos in violation of UN sanctions imposed in 2019. With few customers, their function is unclear, except perhaps to launder the proceeds from North Korea’s hacking activities. Despite South Korea’s efforts, relations between North Korea and the Southeast Asian communist country have expanded. The same is true for relations with Russia, evinced by Laos’s presence at a recent economic forum in Vladivostok.
Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) – In Russia for a state visit, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders seem to be forming an increasingly close relationship, developing military cooperation between the two countries. Both also have ties with a third country, Laos, a fact that appears to have slipped international attention so far.
Laos is one of the few countries with North Korean restaurants in violation of the United Nations sanctions imposed in December 2019. Found in the past in many of Asia’s largest cities, now only 17 are left, in China, Russia, and Laos, plus one in the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi.
Once an expression of North Korea’s soft power and a source of foreign exchange, it is unclear what role they play today, Al Jazeera reports, especially since they are almost always empty and that Pyongyang's coffers are nowadays replenished via cyberattacks and cryptocurrency theft.
“It would be my number one guess that the restaurants are only there to launder money now,” said Joshua Stanton, a lawyer in Washington, DC who helped draft the United States’s North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016.
“And one of the best sources of money that they could be getting is from those IT workers [in Laos]. It would make perfect sense.” According to Radio Free Asia, IT workers in Laos number around a hundred.
Last May, the US Treasury imposed sanctions against four North Korean entities responsible for training hackers in Russia and Laos.
In theory, Laos adheres to international sanctions, but in practice the communist country is allied with China, which has an interest in trading with North Korea.
At the start of this year, a report by a United Nations Panel of Experts showed that at least four restaurants and a small night market were still in operation in the Southeast Asian country. Even the COVID-19 pandemic failed to completely cut bilateral ties.
But Laos’s cooperation with North Korea (and Russia) goes further. When it established diplomatic relations with the two Koreas in 1974, Laos come under pressure from both.
Despite a progressive rapprochement with North Korea in the following years, Laos continued to be a land of transit for North Korean defectors to South Korea, at least until 2013, when things began to change.
Ten years ago, Laotian authorities arrested nine defectors and returned them to North Korea, saying that they were victims of "human trafficking".
In 2016, when Laos took over the rotating presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), North Korean and Laotian security agencies signed a bilateral agreement to boost cooperation that might include a provision to repatriate North Korean refugees. That year, Laotian exports to North Korea increased.
Despite South Korea’s recent efforts, it seems very difficult to get Laos out of the North Korean and Chinese sphere of influence. Meanwhile, relations with also Russia expanded.
Earlier this week, Laos’s Deputy Prime Minister, Pany Yathotou, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Far Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.
During their meeting, the moderator said that Laos was most heavily bombed country in the world after the United States dropped over 200 million bombs during the Vietnam War
For his part, Putin spoke about cooperation between Russia and Africa, stressing that Africans were brought to Europe "in cages” during the period of European colonialism.
The talks also included discussions about humanitarian aid to Laos, Laotian students in Russia, and the development of trade in national currencies, the rouble and the kip.
As part of ASEAN, Laos is an important strategic ally for Russia, experts say. Since 2021, Moscow's supply chains have shifted eastwards. In the case of Laos, this has led to greater trade and a growing influx of Russian tourists.
The two countries have also boosted military cooperation since 2019, in the wake of a series of joint exercises.
Next year, Laos is set to assume the ASEAN presidency from Indonesia. Myanmar was supposed to do so but was excluded after it plunged into a devastating civil war pitting the military against various resistance groups.
Meanwhile, Russia, China and even North Korea will likely continue to put pressure on Laos.