Shrouded in uncertainty for almost a year, it seems that Kim Jong Un may be finally taking steps to formally accept an invitation from the Kremlin to visit Russia.
Toward the end of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Pyongyang in May last year, Kim Jong Un met with Russia’s top diplomat, who extended an invitation to Kim directly from Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin, for its part, has appeared somewhat anxious for a response, as Russian officials have issued several gentle reminders over the past 11 months that the invitation stands.
Now, with one of Russia’s top law enforcement and security official’s recent visit to North Korea, there are concrete indications that a brief sojourn to Russia for the North Korean leader is in the works, even though the Russian embassy in North Korea didn’t say as much.
Several analyses of late have asserted that Kim is reaching out to Russia in the aftermath of the Hanoi summit.
Certainly the inconclusive second Trump-Kim gathering is on the minds of Moscow’s Korea hands and other relevant officials: a case-in-point is a recent request from Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov to have Steve Biegun, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for North Korea, visit Moscow.
Kim does not need to visit Russia to secure the Kremlin’s support
To be fair, the aftermath of Hanoi may have given Kim Jong Un a greater sense of urgency in responding to Moscow’s overture. But to claim that the basis of a long-likely summit between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin is the recent breakdown of U.S.-DPRK diplomacy misses over 25 years of context.
Indeed, particularly since the outbreak of the second North Korean nuclear crisis in 2002-2003, Moscow has provided Pyongyang with ample diplomatic support within its means, including calling for an easing of sanctions and otherwise attempting to act as something of a counterweight against the United States.
Kim does not need to visit Russia to secure the Kremlin’s support. Pyongyang already has it and is well aware of the fact: what Kim Jong Un will likely do in meeting with Putin is further strengthen a bilateral relationship that has been rebuilding slowly but steadily.
In the early 1990’s, the Moscow-Pyongyang relationship, complicated yet solid and stable for the previous four decades, cooled significantly. With the new Russian Federation struggling to adjust to the post-communist shocks of a free market economy and the loss of its superpower status, North Korea was, for the Kremlin, more of a liability than an asset.
Russian officials at that time spoke openly of a decoupling between the DPRK and the Russian Federation, while debate ensued as to whether or not post-Soviet Russia was bound by its 1961 friendship treaty with North Korea, which included provisions for coming to the DPRK’s aid in the event of a military crisis.
By the onset of the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993-1994, the damage to Moscow-Pyongyang ties had been done. In particular, Russian overtures to North Korea to assist with the crisis were met with dismissal in Pyongyang.
Concurrent with the decline of North Korea-Russia relations, the Kremlin began to base its foreign policy in part on the concept of securing a “belt of good neighborliness” along its peripheries.
With the lion’s share of Russian economic and political power near Europe and Central Asia, as well as the normalization of Moscow’s relations with China in the 1990’s, those border regions took priority over the Korean peninsula.
In the early 1990’s the Moscow-Pyongyang relationship cooled significantly
No doubt undergirding the Kremlin’s willingness to pay little heed to North Korea was a long-standing tendency among Russia’s elite policy circles to emphasize Europe over Asia.
By 2000, however, Russia had new leadership. Vladimir Putin was possibly sensitive — based on his personal experience in East Germany in the late 1980’s — to the geopolitical implications of having a divided country on the Russian periphery.
That year Moscow and Pyongyang signed a new friendship treaty, albeit one that lacked the trappings of closeness in the 1961 Moscow-Pyongyang accord.
In the immediately ensuing years, Kim Jong Il made two visits to Russia. In 2001 he traveled by train all the way to Moscow. In 2002 he stayed within the Russian Far East, meeting Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok to discuss both the security situation in Korea and the prospects of connecting both Koreas to the Trans-Siberian railroad, as well as touring Russian industries.
In August 2011, Kim Jong Il made one last trip, where he and then-president Dmitri Medvedev discussed both economic and security issues, including a hopeful revival of the Six Party Talks.
The fact that commercial issues were a crucial part of all three of Kim Jong Il’s meetings with Putin and Medvedev indicates that while security was of course a central issue, it was not the sole purpose behind Kim’s travels. Rather, Kim’s voyages to the Russian Federation were part of a broader effort to solidify the post-2000 reset of Moscow-Pyongyang relations.
From the Russian end, a desire to rekindle ties with North Korea at the outset of Putin’s first presidential term could be seen as a somewhat delayed implementation the Russian strategy of establishing friendly relations with states along its periphery.
North Korea, possibly gearing up for further potential crises and increased isolation, while wary of the effects of excessive reliance on China for diplomatic and economic support, was only too happy to let bygones be bygones.
The 2000 friendship treaty, though in and of itself a significant reversal from the state of North Korea-Russia relations in the 1990’s, was only the basis of a renewed relationship, a foundation that existed in letter but not yet in spirit.
Over the years the DPRK and Russia have taken several steps to restore their bilateral ties, ranging from the establishment of a DPRK-Russia business council to cooperation in law enforcement.
This is to say nothing of the continued efforts between the two countries to boost the meager level of trade between them, averaging annually in recent years at a mere $80 million, as well as continued dialogue over security.
Over the years the DPRK and Russia have taken several steps to restore their bilateral ties
As North Korea-Russia bilateral relations have progressed smoothly over the years, the issue of the Kremlin’s broader influence on the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia runs up against significant hurdles from outside the milieu of North Korea-Russia ties.
The precipitous downturn of DPRK-Russia relations coincided with a general restructuring of the East Asian balance of power. During the Cold War, East Asia in some ways reflected the Soviet-American bipolarity that characterized much of world politics.
The collapse of the USSR, however, left open an opportunity for China to emerge as the major counterweight to US influence in the region.
In contrast to Russia, China’s policies toward and relations with North Korea have remained largely consistent, allowing Beijing to retain greater leverage than the Kremlin over the DPRK.
With China’s rise as a major force to be reckoned with in East Asia, the Russian Federation has found it to be beneficial to coordinate its policies toward the Korean security crisis with Beijing, cooperation no doubt facilitated by the establishment of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, codified in a friendship treaty ratified between Beijing and Moscow in 2001.
Outside of Russia there are differing views on the driving forces between Russia’s collaboration with China in the limited context of the Korean security crisis.
Some experts assert that the Russian Federation is acting in a role largely supplementary to China in pursuing North Korean denuclearization, while others argue that cooperation with Beijing is part of the Kremlin’s global-level nonproliferation policies.
In any case, the sum total of the developments in Russia’s standing in post-Cold War East Asia leads to the issue of what a visit by Kim Jong Un to the Russian Federation would mean for the balance between China, the DPRK, and Russia.
China and Moscow’s overarching mutual alignment over the Korean security crisis — most notably the Sino-Russian roadmap unveiled in 2017 — doesn’t mean that the Kremlin lacks its own interests in Korea, which exist either separately from or possibly even in contrast to those of China.
In particular, for Kim Jong Un to meet Putin directly would send a signal that Beijing isn’t the only influencer on the northern half of Korean Peninsula.
Success in solidifying North Korea-Russia bilateral relations, while understandably causing alarm in the United States, could also prompt unease in Beijing, possibly signaling that Russia could be emerging as a challenger to the Sino-American bipolarity in Northeast Asia, one not always guaranteed to be in alignment with China.
Of course, for Kim Jong Un not to meet his Russian counterpart after declaring 2015 to be a “year of friendship” with Russia, much less having received a personal invitation from Putin himself, would possibly run the risk of damaging relations with the Kremlin. At the very least, failing to meet with Putin could leave the impression that developments in Moscow-Pyongyang ties have been style over substance.
Kim Jong Un to meet Putin directly would send a signal that Beijing isn’t the only influencer
In other words, if Kim has met with the Chinese leadership multiple times and engaged directly with the U.S. President twice, but doesn’t convene with Putin in a relatively timely manner, it could create diplomatic awkwardness between Moscow and Pyongyang.
If Kim Jong Un were solely reaching out to Russia for help in the ongoing security crisis, he would likely have done so ahead of a specific event and without publicity, as he has done in his several meetings with China’s Xi Jinping.
Indeed, it was Russia that made the first move in setting Kim Jong Un’s visit in motion.
If and when Kim Jong Un meets with his Russian counterpart, Kim will not simply be issuing a cry for help, but will be continuing a long process of restoration.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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