It’s also a convenient place to sidestep U.N. sanctions that demand the expulsion of all North Korean guest workers worldwide by late December.
Russia and China, which have hosted the lion’s share, signed the resolution two years ago with some reluctance.
But tiny Russia-backed Abkhazia — firmly outside the U.N. family — offers Moscow a place to stash some of the North Korean workers rather than ship them home. For Russia, there is a strategic play at hand.
The Kremlin hopes the small cadre of workers tucked away in Abkhazia will help win some more goodwill with Kim Jong Un’s regime as Moscow tries to strengthen its influence in Asia, analysts say.
Around 400 North Koreans — mostly men with wives and families back home to support — have been relocated to this subtropical strip of land, with many in the main city, Sukhumi. Their nights are spent in an abandoned Soviet holiday resort, surrounded by date palms and decaying mosaics of Lenin.
Ghost towns and sunseekers
By day they are building apartment blocks and pharmacies and laying railway tracks in a region still pockmarked by the secessionist conflict of the early 1990s when Abkhazia, backed by Moscow, broke away from Georgia.
Abkhazia is part of a constellation of separatist enclaves stretching across the former Soviet domain, from a breakaway slice of Moldova in the west to quasi-states in the Black Sea region in the east. For Russia, they are footholds to bypass international norms and sanctions, and even provide an off-the-grid financial system. The breakaway states are recognized by only a handful of pro-Russian countries such as Venezuela and Syria.
About 10,000 North Korean workers remain in Russia — down from a high of about 40,000 — and Moscow has promised to send them home by a Dec. 22 deadline.
The 400 North Korean workers in Abkhazia are just a blip among what was once about 100,000 worldwide, sending home $500 million each year in remittance, according to U.S. estimates. But it is Moscow’s way of keeping a lifeline open for Pyongyang, analysts say.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry “scrupulously fulfills the obligations stipulated by the international sanctions regime,” spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told The Washington Post. “As for the hiring of migrant workers from North Korea in Abkhazia, it is advisable to address this issue to the relevant state or their employers.”
Once the playground of the Soviet elite, Abkhazia is now scattered with ghost towns and bombed-out buildings. But with lush scenery and cheap beach holidays, the region is sustained by more than 1 million tourists a year, mostly Russian.
Many are drawn by a nostalgic allure for yesteryear, visiting Soviet-era resorts that feel frozen in time. The irony of having guest workers from a communist state is not lost on the locals.
On a balmy September morning, a North Korean man who goes by “Dr. Kim” was massaging Russian senior citizens in a little hut on the beach for $7 a session.
“I feel like the bust of Lenin cheers [Dr. Kim] up,” said his employer, Zurab Zukhba, manager of the “Land of the Soul” high-rise resort. “He recognized him.”
'Hard to replace'
While Abkhazia likes to present itself as an independent republic, that is far from the reality. A quick stroll through central Sukhumi, where the newly built, sprawling Russian Embassy twinkles in the sun, shows who has sway over Abkhazia’s affairs.
Russia, particularly its underdeveloped Far East, is feeling the pinch of the sanctions and the loss of North Korean labor.
“The approaching exodus is pretty painful for us,” said Artyom Lukin, a professor of international politics at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, near the Russian border with North Korea. “I’m already seeing idle construction sites. They will be hard to replace.”
Of the 1,000 North Korean laborers once employed by contractor Yuri Dyakov in Russia’s Far Eastern region of Sakhalin, only 120 remain. Over the past two years, about 90 have left for Abkhazia, where Dyakov helped them find construction work.
“I feel sorry for them,” said Dyakov, who heads the Sakhalin branch of Pillar of Russia, a nongovernmental business association. “It’s not right to suddenly get rid of your friends because of these sanctions.”
Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin welcomed North Korean leader Kim to Russia for his inaugural visit, a meeting designed by both to send Washington the message that there are other players when it comes to dealing with denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.
But in recent months, tensions have cropped up between Russia and cash-strapped North Korea.
'Makes perfect sense'
Thousands of North Korean boats have been illegally fishing for squid in Russia’s Pacific waters, even resulting in a fatal exchange of gunfire and the summoning in September of Pyongyang’s chargé d’affaires, Chin Jeong Hyup, to the foreign ministry in Moscow. After a North Korean vessel opened fire in September on a Russian patrol boat, injuring three guards, the Russians returned fire, killing a North Korean fisherman.
Moscow is unlikely to abandon its former Cold War ally, however.
“It makes perfect sense for the Russian government to try [to] facilitate economic ties between North Korea and Abkhazia. One is a rogue state, and the other is entirely dependent on handouts from Moscow,” said Alex Melikishvili, principal research analyst at IHS Markit.
Once Moscow recognized Abkhazia as independent in 2008, cash from Russia flooded in. The United Nations and Western nations still see Abkhazia as part of Georgia.
Abkhazia is also keen to develop economic ties with other Russia-connected states shunned on the global arena, such as Syria and the Moscow-backed breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine.
But with North Korea, officials in Abkhazia claim Pyongyang came to them.
“They approached us with an offer of manual labor,” said Tamila Mertskhulava, head of Abkhazia’s chamber of commerce and industry, who visited Pyongyang last year. “This is what they can export.”
A few months after she was invited to Pyongyang, a group of North Korean officials visited Abkhazia, where they sampled the local wine, kiwis and mandarin oranges.
Their favorite part of the trip? Touring the summer residence of Joseph Stalin.