Pyongyang’s Russian sentiment
North Korea continues to play on a one man team as its nuclear tests only deepen the country’s isolation. South Korea, the United States and Japan are actively involved politically on the Korean peninsula but their goals rarely focus on issues other than international security. However, there are countries for which Kim Jong Un’s regime is not only a target for international sanctions and criticism, but also an economic partner. China and Russia are part of that club. Paradoxically, maintaining good relations with Kim’s regime is important for Moscow as any potential dominance in Asia partly depends on Pyongyang’s support.
Meanwhile, Pyongyang’s continuing threats of nuclear weapons have become uncomfortable even for its most loyal partner – China. Beijing has recently announced the possibility of imposing new sanctions against Pyongyang, prompting an immediate response from North Korea. As reported by the state-run Korea Central News Agency, China has “crossed the line” and “Pyongyang will never ask for Chinese friendship”. In response, China has returned a shipment of North Korean coal. Since Beijing is Korea’s largest trading partner (91 per cent of $5.7 billion trading volume), this declaration will naturally shift the country’s focus to Russia – the second largest trading partner (1.3 per cent of trade turnover worth $85 million) and South Korea, as long as the new president will end up in line with Pyongyang’s hopes.
Pyongyang’s weakness for Moscow
North Korea’s fondness for Russia has its roots in 1961 and the signing of the Friendship Treaty between the two states (Russia then as the Soviet Union). Today, Russia is one of a few countries which call the UN Security Council to impose more proportionate measures in response to North Korea’s nuclear blackmail. This attempt to balance the more hardline voices has been acknowledged in Pyongyang, especially since Donald Trump’s declaration that if Chinese President Xi Jinping’s mediation efforts fail, the US may resolve the issue by force.
Moreover, Moscow has provided the North with humanitarian aid. Recently, it announced the delivery of more than 400,000 tons of wheat flour to the troubled partner, which has been immersed in poverty and economic agony, further exacerbated by the falling hard coal prices – the country’s only export commodity.
Already in 2010 Moscow announced a greater focus on Asian to take advantage of the Asia-Pacific region’s dynamic development. However a more distinctive rapprochement between Moscow and Pyongyang took place in 2014 and 2015, after the European Union and the United States imposed economic sanctions against Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine. At that time, Russia openly expressed the need to strengthen economic ties with Asian states, including North Korea.
Naturally, Moscow’s relations with Pyongyang are not a priority for the Kremlin and are only part of the country’s Asian strategy. Nevertheless, today Russia appears more determined to maintain good economic relations with the Workers’ Party of Korea. Moscow is keen to play the role as negotiator and trusted partner for Pyongyang which will surely be used by the Kremlin in talks with the US and Japan.
Today, in the midst of sharp criticism coming from Beijing, the North Korean authorities increasingly emphasise the need for the nation to stay strong and resilient in the face of the international sanctions, similar to those imposed on Moscow. This rhetoric has been accompanied by the intensification of visits of Russian dignitaries to Pyongyang – headed by the Minister for Development of the Far East, Aleksandr Galushka, in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and the resulting international outcry. Interestingly, at the same session of Duma during which the annexation of Crimea was approved, North Korea’s $10 billion debt was remitted, while a remaining $1 billion was extended for the next 20 years.
A crawling co-operation
Despite the good will on both sides, however, there is little evidence of any invigorated economic co-operation between Moscow and Pyongyang. In addition to the aforementioned near-$100 million trade balance and a recently opened ferry service running four times a month between Rajin and Vladivostok, there are really no new initiatives. This is mainly because it is difficult to build ties with such a weak economic partner as North Korea. While 2015 was meant to a year of Russian-Korean friendship, culminated in a summit between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, the high hopes soon faded as the meeting never took place.
Why, then, does it seem that Russia is so eager to build good relations with Korea? The answer is trivial. Moscow would like to deliver natural gas to South Korea, Pyongyang’s democratic neighbour, via North Korea’s territory. The construction of a gas pipeline and energy infrastructure (worth $30 billion) coupled with the modernisation of 3,500 kilometres of North Korean rail (worth $25 billion) are two flagship investment projects that Putin has already promised to Kim Jong Un.
While historically it is easy to explain Russia’s strategy with its imperial ambitions to conquer new lands, making empty promises to the Kim regime seems unreasonable and short-sighted. Moscow does not have the means to complete these investments which would consume at least $55 billion. Meanwhile, the queue of countries interested in trading with Pyongyang is growing and has recently included Indonesia and Singapore.
The Russian authorities are well aware that building an effective domination in Asia is difficult in the current competitive international environment, especially given China’s dominance. However, its good relations with North Korea might be used by Moscow as a smokescreen to hide its internal problems and to show the international community that Russia is still capable of shaping the world order. During his last visit to Pyongyang in 2016, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that closer co-operation between North Korea and Russia would strengthen stability and security in Northeast Asia. Pyongyang, in response, gave signals that it was seriously considering a resumption of the six-party negotiations (North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the US) on its nuclear programme. Nevertheless, these talks are still frozen.
Russia’s growing impatience
In spite of North Korea’s well-played role, Moscow, like Beijing, is losing its patience. The Kremlin’s growing irritation with the provocative tone of Pyongyang manifests itself with the large number of densely armoured cars on the Chabarovsk-Vladivostok highway, heading towards the border with North Korea. Although Colonel Alexander Gordeev, the spokesman for the Eastern Military District of the Russian Federation, insists that the increased military presence in the area is only part of field exercises. Yet, Moscow is obviously keeping a watchful eye on the North, and the artificial islands it is building in the Yellow Sea which, according to analysts from Strategic Sentinel, can serve as a military base.
It is hard to keep calm, especially in Moscow, where any dispute involving North Korea would bring detrimental economic effects. Thus, the declaration by the North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Han Song Riola that Pyongyang will conduct further nuclear tests regardless of the international community’s opinion comes as chilling.
One may conclude that the Russian-Korean friendship is little more than a piece of political propaganda that Moscow is using in critical moments. Its real aim is to take advantage of the periods of calm in between crises and realise the gas strategy on the Korean peninsula. This game will continue as long as Russia is dependent on exporting its energy resources; and as long as Pyongyang’s threats remain declarative only.
Grzegorz Kaliszuk is an economic analyst with the Warsaw School of Economics. He is the author of over 100 articles devoted to Russia, CIS countries and energy issues.