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View more articles by Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna is an analyst on Russian foreign policy in East Asia for the Sino-NK research group. He currently resides in South Korea.
Much has been made of Kim Jong Un’s decision to send Lunar New Year greeting cards to Russia first, followed by China, as a sign of a re-prioritization in North Korea’s hierarchy of international partners.
Indeed, there is no doubt that North Korea and Russia have been making strides in augmenting their bilateral relationship, while the DPRK’s ties to China have simultaneously suffered a decline. The news over the weekend that the PRC will suspend all coal imports from North Korea, allegedly in response to the DPRK’s missile test earlier in the month, means Pyongyang may be looking for a sympathetic friend.
Yet to say that Russia has substantively replaced China as North Korea’s main international partner risks oversimplifying Russia’s geopolitical position toward the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s desire for closer ties to Russia, which Russia has only been too happy to reciprocate, does not automatically translate into diminished Chinese influence in favor of Russia.
The disparity in North Korea’s bilateral trade with China and Russia, respectively, is still immense, and China continues to retain its position as the foreign government with the most substantial contact with the North Korean ruling elite.
It is in Russia’s short-and medium-term benefit to see the continuation of the Kim family regime
Yet even without the geopolitical interplay between China and Russia in Northeast Asia, Russia is caught in a complicated position vis-à-vis Korea, and is limited in its ability to establish close ties with the DPRK due to Russia’s need for good relations with South Korea.
North Korea’s most recent ballistic missile launch underscores the limits of friendliness and goodwill in North Korea-Russia relations. Several key figures in Russia’s foreign policy community were swift to condemn the February 12 missile test.
Russia’s foreign ministry described the launch as part of a continued defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. Furthermore, the DPRK’s ballistic missile launch received condemnation from both Leonid Slutsky and Konstantin Kosachev, who chair the foreign affairs committees of Russia’s lower and upper houses of parliament, respectively.
It is in Russia’s short-and medium-term benefit to see the continuation of the Kim family regime, hence why Russia has been pursuing agreements with North Korea on refugees. This is because anything that could threaten the stability of the current ruling government – including an increasing number of defections – could trigger a wider political crisis in Korea, with serious implications for Russia.
Yet Russia’s fear of violence on the Korean Peninsula causes Russian consternation at North Korea’s actions. This apprehension regarding North Korean security provocations also underlies part of Russia’s security relationship with South Korea.
A cornerstone of Russian foreign policy toward the Koreas is to establish itself as an intermediary between the North and South. This constitutes a major change in Moscow’s Soviet-era position of hostility toward South Korea, as well as Russia’s initial post-Cold War lack of attention toward the ROK.
Russia’s assumption of an intermediary position would, in Moscow’s view, enable Russia to enact its goal of achieving disarmament in Korea through peaceful means, ultimately serving Russia’s security interests.
Russia wants to securitize its Far Eastern regions not only in terms of traditional military security, but economically as well. This includes both connecting Russia’s Far Eastern region to international commercial routes as well as enticing wealthy states to invest in Russia’s underdeveloped Asian territories.
A cornerstone of Russian foreign policy toward the Koreas is to establish itself as an intermediary between the North and South
Russia needs North Korea’s geographic position as an outlet to global markets, as North Korea and Russia are connected not only by geography, but also by programs such as the Greater Tumen River Initiative (in which South Korea also participates) and cooperation on transport projects. At the same time, it needs South Korean investment as a means to mitigate dependence on China and, to a lesser extent, Japan.
Thus, Russia cannot act as an intermediary between the Koreas if it overtly prefers one over the other. North Korea-Russia relations, therefore, cannot be reduced to the simple Cold War-era dynamics of China and Russia experiencing changes in their respective positions of influence in North Korea.
Rather, Russia’s continued need for equidistance and balance between North and South Korea will continue to circumscribe the budding DPRK-Russia relationship.