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Rob York is a feature writer for NK News and Ph.D candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Perhaps more than any other country involved in the Six-Party Talks – China included – Russia must take a balanced approach to the two Koreas, a panel of Russian experts told NK News.
The roots of this approach, they indicated, extend back to the Soviet Union’s normalization of relations with Seoul in the early 1990s and subsequent loss of influence over the North. Because of this, they said, neither the North nor the South took Russia’s position seriously during the tumult of the 1990s.
Considerable effort has been expended by Moscow to resume relations with the North – which like Russia has been known to defy international opinion for its own nationalistic imperatives – while maintaining relations with South Korea – with whom Moscow shares economic interests.
However, despite their good relations there is a definitive ceiling to Moscow-Pyongyang relations: no matter how dissatisfied the North may be with its dependence on Beijing, they know Russia cannot replace China as its top trading partner.
And even as Russia exercises its own independence, it sides with the international community in one important respect: It vehemently opposes North Korea’s nuclear proliferation in its back yard.
In part 16 of a new NK News expert interview series, Russian experts who talked to NK News included:
Additional reporting: Chad O’Carroll
Q16) How would you characterize Russia-DPRK relations at this time and why are they evolving the way they are?
Russia’s policy toward North Korea has two dimensions: when Russia acts as a member of international community and when it acts as an independent player in the Asia-Pacific region. As a responsible member of the international community and permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia condemns DPRK’s provocations aimed at destabilizing the situation in neighboring areaa. For example, Russia condemned missile and nuclear tests conducted by DPRK in 2012-2013. Russia regarded DPRK’s provocations as actions that undermined the global non-proliferation regime.
As an independent player in the Asia-Pacific region, Russia wants to increase its presence and expand its integration in the region. Russian goals are concentrated primarily in the economic field. Russia wants to extend trade relations with neighboring Asian countries and attract Asian capital in order to develop the depopulated regions of Eastern Siberia and Russian Far East. Thus, instability on the Korean Peninsula is an obstacle to Russia’s efforts to integrate its economy in the region.
Instability on the Korean Peninsula is an obstacle to Russia’s efforts to integrate its economy in the region
Russia’s official position is that it is necessary to settle the Korean problem by political and diplomatic means primarily by creating conditions for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. The weak point is that Russia doesn’t have a clear vision of what needs to be done to resume the talks. More important is to ensure that collective efforts are effective in achieving the main goal, which is the denuclearization of North Korea.
Both Russia and North Korea are the anachronisms of the 20th century power politics. Both countries failed to integrate into the contemporary global world order and continue to intimidate their regional neighbors and mislead their own populations. Both countries are under international sanctions for their aggressive intentions and nuclear ambitions. It is hardly surprising that the Russo-DPRK bilateral relations are improving and both peoples are increasingly sympathetic toward each other.
The saddest thing about this growing friendship is in its ideological and desperate nature, which comes out of necessity and isolation. This marriage of convenience comforts both parties in their grief over the absence of better and happier relationships with those who refuse even to talk to them. The relationship may look strong on the surface but it’s lacking in substance.
Both countries failed to integrate into the contemporary global world order and continue to intimidate their regional neighbors and mislead their own populations
The relations are unusually good, better than ever in the last 30 years. The period following spring 2014 has been marked by a great intensity of diplomatic exchanges, visits of high-level delegations and talks on economic issues.
Politics is what seemingly drives rapprochement. The North Korean government worries about its excessive and growing dependence on China, and looks for alternatives. The Russian government would like to move back, to be more active on the Korean Peninsula. It is also understood that better relations with Pyongyang will make Russia’s voice better heard. There might be also a measure of sympathy toward the North Korean government, which is sometimes perceived nowadays as a brave David challenging the American Goliath – given the unusually high temperature of the anti-U.S. feelings in Russia now, this is understandable, too.
However, there is a fundamental weakness in the relationship: There is little economic exchange and trade between the two countries. North Korea’s trade with Russia is almost 70 times less than its trade with China, and this ratio tells us everything. NK-Russia trade has been stagnating and, actually, slowly sliding down for two decades, and this is not incidental: Given the current structure of the Russian and North Korean economies, the two sides have little to trade. In spite of all the loud talk, the 2014 statistics confirmed that the downward trend has not yet been reversed.
There is a fundamental weakness in the relationship: There is little economic exchange and trade between the two countries.
Things are made worse by the illusions the North Korean decision-makers seemingly entertain: They hope that Russia, driven by geostrategic concerns and ambitions, will actively subsidize the trade and exchanges. Such subsidies are not forthcoming, at least not on the scale the North Korean side seemingly expects. However, there are reasons to hope that some of the projects which have been launched recently, will survive and prosper. For example, the joint development project at the Rason port is a good idea: politically useful, economically sound.
Russia-DPRK relations have been on the rise since the second half of 2013, mainly due to North Korean initiative. However they reached a saturation point right now, with not enough room for any qualitative breakthrough.
To understand the current status there is a need to look back. Russia has been consistently trying to improve bilateral relations under its policy of “standing on both legs” on the Korean Peninsula since the mid-1990’s (when Yevgeny Primakov became minister of foreign affairs in 1996). This policy culminated in the Putin-Kim Jong Il exchange of visits in 2000-2001 with many new agreements reached and political contacts becoming brisk. However, after the emergence of the enriched uranium crisis in 2002 and the start of the “Axis of Evil” concept-based policy of Bush administration, bilateral relations experienced some limitations due to the nuclear issue. In 2008 former President Medvedev’s government, which leaned toward the West, and the conservative Lee Myung-bak government coming to power – and the ROK remaining an important Russian partner in Asia – led to Russia-DPRK relations cooling down a bit.
However, momentum was restored thanks to both sides’ diplomatic efforts – culminating in the Medvedev-Kim Jong Il meeting in August 2011. The upward trend, however, was arrested due to Kim Jong Il’s death later in 2011 and subsequent uncertainty about Kim Jong Un’s power in 2012. Nevertheless, the North Korean side expressed interest in economic cooperation and Russia reciprocated, in 2012 basing its principal position of improving good neighborly relations.
Discussion on many new projects started, with North Koreans being unusually forthcoming – probably trying to balance Chinese dominance. After the temporary setback in the wake of military rhetoric by Kim Jong Un in 2013, these relations steadily progressed. With Russia’s distancing from the West and critically approaching U.S. policy, Russia-DPRK visits and cooperation became wider. After the breakup of Russia’s relations with the West due to takeover of Crimea and war in Ukraine, North Korea has shown unprecedented friendliness toward Russia, supporting it in many occasions – sometimes to Moscow’s hidden embarrassment. Political and economic contacts reached the level, unprecedented since 1980s.
Economic benefits for North Korea, the most important factor for them, are yet to materialize
However economic benefits for North Korea, the most important factor for them, are yet to materialize. There are also limits to Russia’s support of the DPRK in nuclear and missile issues (a nuclear test would cause a harsh reaction, although probably mostly rhetorical). Personal relations at the summit level also have not evolved – not the way they did between Putin and Kim Jong Il. Russia is not going to replace China as the DPRK’s major sponsor. So, unless a miracle happens – like Putin visiting the DPRK – there is little room for further closeness in relations, although they remain stable.
Russia’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula has experienced drastic changes in the end of the 20th century. Till the end of the 1980s the USSR, mainly for ideological reasons, maintained relations with only one of the two Korean states – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – and ignored the other one – the Republic of Korea (ROK). Then, after well-known changes in the Soviet Union’s foreign and domestic policy and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the ROK, prompt rapprochement with Seoul and the rapid cooling of relations with Pyongyang have taken place. During the short period of 1990-1992 Russia failed to utilize its unique position as the only great power maintaining diplomatic relations with both Korean states.
Russian experts and Russia’s leaders started to look for a more rational and balanced course toward the peninsula. Russia’s new course takes into account both social and economic changes in Russia and geopolitical realities in the international arena. Russia’s new foreign policy, including toward the Korean Peninsula, is characterized by the total disappearance of ideological factors and by the appreciable increase of pragmatism in defining approaches to the current global and regional problems.
It is obvious that Russia has interests both in the North and in the South of the Korean Peninsula. However, opportunities for their realization are determined by differences in the social and economic systems, foreign policy and economic potential of the two Korean states. Russia’s political and economic values now, undoubtedly, are closer to those in the ROK than in the DPRK.
Russia’s new foreign policy, including toward the Korean Peninsula, is characterized by the total disappearance of ideological factors
However, Moscow’s foreign policy priorities quite often to a greater degree coincide with Pyongyang’s line, which supports or has a lot of common with our positions on a number of the major international issues (the multi-polar world order, missile defense, NATO’s expansion). While striving to upgrade a level of political interaction and trade and economic cooperation with the ROK adequate to Russia’s interests, Moscow is not going to lose its political influence and economic positions in North Korea, whose economy was developed with Soviet assistance and till now in many aspects has oriented toward the Russian technology, resources and markets.
All these factors dictate the Russia necessity of standing in Korea, figuratively speaking, “on two legs” – to maintain good-neighborhood relations with both Korean states. Imbalance in Moscow’s Korean policy for the benefit of one of them has always reduced Russia’s ability to influence Korean developments and led to a decline in interest in Moscow as a worthy partner in both Korean states and other participants in the Korean settlement.
Main picture: Wikimedia Commons