A recent article in the East Asia Forum offers the belief that Russia, for a variety of reasons, is well-positioned to solve the North Korean nuclear problem. In making that case, the authors point out that Russia and North Korea share a border – not quite 11 miles (roughly 17 kilometers), and that the two have both commercial air and rail links across the border. They also mention that Russia has abundant energy to sell, but that trade between the two nations is not great, perhaps $100 million per year.
Another piece in the Joongang Daily states that North Korean ties with Russia are stronger than those with China. In support of this, the essay points out that Moscow forgave nine-tenths of the nearly $11 billion in debt that Pyongyang owed the former USSR.
In light of these two articles, one might be led to believe that Moscow is indeed capable of persuading Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear weapons and its nascent long-distance missile programs. Unfortunately, that would be a serious misreading of the realities of both North Korea and Russia.
JUST THE FACTS
If one looks sensibly at the North Korean economy, it becomes quite clear that the Russian debt forgiveness was not an altruistic gesture. That debt was not recoverable, even under the best of circumstances. It would be wrong to interpret Moscow’s perceived philanthropy as a harbinger of Russian patronage in the future.
North Korea struggles to acquire hard currency as it is, and there is none to spare for outside purposes such as repayment of loans to a long-dead political entity, the USSR. Russia likely made that grand dispensation to gain good will in order to further its own financial aims in the region. Given the dubious possibility of any North Korean repayment to begin with, Russia gave away nothing.
And as for Russian finances, Moscow itself is in no position to support Pyongyang. Its own finances are in dire straits, due to a stalled economy and expensive military activities on its western and southwestern fronts with the West. It does not have cash to spare for an economically-challenged state like North Korea. Its interest in the DPRK is almost exclusively a manifestation of a need to develop markets for its energy – gas and oil – that will bring Moscow its own supply of desperately needed hard currency.
It would be wrong to interpret Moscow’s perceived philanthropy as a harbinger of Russian patronage in the future
China remains the North’s only significant economic partner, accounting for about 90% of the trade between the two nations. One might wonder why, if North Korean ties are so strong with Russia, Beijing continues to support Pyongyang.
First, relations between Pyongyang and Beijing may be strained, but China is not about to allow North Korea to devolve into chaos, for that is the last thing it needs on its sensitive northeastern border. For as long as possible, Beijing will keep Pyongyang from faltering. The point here is that Beijing is Pyongyang’s guarantor, not Moscow.
Second, relations between the North and the Russian Far East are primarily financial in nature, but not quite in the way one might think. Russia’s Primorsky Krai, its Far East maritime province, is sparsely populated, and Moscow appreciates the cheap labor that Pyongyang is willing to provide. As for North Korea, that exported labor is a source of hard currency, sorely needed to keep the regime afloat. Pyongyang – as does Moscow – needs money coming in, not going out.
The point here is that Beijing is Pyongyang’s guarantor, not Moscow
So, despite Russia having a presence in the area along with an interest in North Korea, it is not in any position to become the financial salvation for North Korea. Russia cannot support North Korea and North Korea cannot afford to buy Russian energy. Without money, there is no leverage. Without leverage, there is no influence. Accordingly, Russia is not in any position to persuade North Korea to give up its nukes.
NORTH KOREA’S POSITION
More importantly, this discussion hasn’t addressed the question of whether North Korea is even willing to negotiate abandoning its nuclear ambitions. As Pyongyang watchers around the world are finally beginning to understand, the answer is, to use the phrasing of the new U.S. president: “It won’t happen!”
North Korea paid close attention to the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the early 1990s and it knows what happened to the USSR’s client states. Pyongyang is not about to rely on any Moscow guarantee regarding the security of the Kim regime. As has been discussed in myriads of news outlets – both print and online – there is only one thing that makes Kim Jong Un feel safe from American invasion: North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its ability to hurl them great distances, soon to encompass at least the West Coast of the U.S.
Kim Jong Un is not going to stop there. North Korea is well aware that at various times in the past – and now back under discussion – American military planners and political leaders have considered pre-emptive strikes on the North’s nuclear facilities.
Pyongyang is not about to rely on any Moscow guarantee regarding the security of the Kim regime
Thus, regardless of the logistical challenges of any military strike on the North and the debatable probability that such operations would be successful, Kim Jong Un is now focusing on surviving whatever can be thrown at his regime in order to have a second-strike ability.
The capital area of South Korea – and perhaps Japan and the U.S. as well – would suffer grievous damage in response to any attack on the North. It is that threat which is the true guarantor of his regime’s survivability. Once capable of withstanding any attack, pre-emptive or otherwise: the ability to strike back is now Kim Jong Un’s ace in the hole.
Before long, Pyongyang will have perfected its ICBMs and its road-mobile missile launchers that are next to impossible to track and thus target. The Kim regime will soon be able to survive – and retaliate. We are at a decision point here. None of the choices are optimum or even good. What is the new American president going to do?
Featured image: Kremlin.ru
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Featured Image: kremlin by bobrayner on 2003-02-20 07:50:56