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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.
Assessments of the recent summit between Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin will inevitably depend on the vantage point from which one observes it.
From the vantage point of North Korean interests, the summit did not result in promises to defy sanctions, nor did it necessarily break China’s de facto monopoly of influence as the DPRK’s most important international partner.
From the Russian end, however, the summit provided Moscow with a deeper, if somewhat symbolic mark of influence in the DPRK and the Korean security crisis. Where the Kremlin may have fallen short of advancing its interests diplomatically, it has found that it can still rely to a degree on the power of the purse to build influence in the DPRK.
The United States, for its part, seems to hope to catch some of the remaining wind from the Kim-Putin summit to foster deeper understanding with the Kremlin, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting this week with officials in Sochi.
One U.S. official, speaking on a condition of anonymity, recently described American engagement with Moscow in positive terms. More specifically, the official highlighted that Russia and the United States have a “shared goal” in the DPRK’s denuclearization, and that discussions ahead of last month’s Kim-Putin summit, namely U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun’s visit to the Russian capital, had been “constructive.”
Given the relatively limited actual outcomes of the Kim-Putin gathering, Washington’s reactions to the aftermath of the summit itself will likewise invariably be limited in scope. Nevertheless, the DPRK-Russia relationship, when viewed in a wider context, will continue to pose challenges for U.S. interests.
Shortly after the Kim-Putin summit, the Russian Federation pledged $4 million in humanitarian aid to the DPRK via the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The amount the Russian government pledged comprises to 54 percent of the total of the humanitarian aid the DPRK is to receive through the OCHA this year.
The Kremlin’s decision to allot $4 million specifically to North Korea is notable, given that Russia is not even among the top ten donor nations for the OCHA overall.
Whether there is any connection between Russia’s aid provision and the Kim-Putin summit is unclear, given that there may simply have been a relative degree of coincidence between the summit itself and the release of UN data. Nevertheless, Russia’s own national interest is no doubt in part behind the donation.
The Kremlin fears social upheaval in the DPRK due to the humanitarian situation in the country, yet by focusing particularly on North Korea, humanitarian aid can also constitute a form of soft power allowing the Russian Federation to increase its own leverage with Pyongyang.
Following the summit, one factor Russian officials have apparently taken a keen interest in is legally mitigating the DPRK’s economic isolation that has taken root due to sanctions.
During Kim Jong Un’s visit to Vladivostok, the governor of Primorye province, Oleg Kozhemyako, proposed that the North Korean government ease restrictions for Russian tourists hoping to travel to the DPRK. Indeed, given the mutual visa-free regime between Russia and South Korea, the ROK is a much more amenable tourist destination for Russian tourists.
Easing restrictions on both entry into the DPRK as well as increasing the degree of independence for Russian tourists, however, could possibly provide a way for North Korea to procure a flow of cash, something that the Kremlin — itself worried about Pyongyang’s increasingly-stringent economic isolation — would no doubt welcome.
The U.S., however, is unlikely to welcome the prospect of loosening restrictions against international travelers to the DPRK, even as Pyongyang itself, feeling the pinch of sanctions, may be inclined to give special consideration to Russian tourists.
Russian officials have apparently taken a keen interest in legally mitigating the DPRK’s economic isolation that has taken root due to sanctions
The nagging question of North Korean laborers in the Russian Federation, oft-discussed in the days and weeks leading up to the summit, has not yet gone away.
One rather negative assessment, while conceding that while the number of North Korean citizens employed in Russia has recently dropped to over 10,000, claims that Russian employers, particularly in parts of the Russian Federation proximate to the DPRK, have continued to hide the continued employment of DPRK citizens from Western investigators.
To be fair, the deadline by which all North Korean citizens employed aboard must be repatriated is more than six months away. To accuse the Russian Federation of bad faith in sanctions enforcement isn’t entirely appropriate at this time — nevertheless, for Washington it will be something to keep an eye on.
Proliferation is also a potential source of concern regarding the Kremlin’s relations with North Korea. This week KCNA reported that Anton Khlopkov, director of the Russia-based Center for Energy and Security Studies had arrived in Pyongyang.
The details surrounding Khlopkov’s visit remain uncertain, yet there is a distinct possibility that he has traveled to the DPRK to discuss civilian-oriented nuclear cooperation with North Korea.
The Center for Energy and Security Studies has in the recent past taken an interest in how the Russian Federation might use cooperation in the energy field with the DPRK as a method of stemming non-proliferation.
In 2017, the Center helped organize a meeting in Moscow with DPRK vice foreign minister Choi Son Hui, who happened to be in the Russian capital around the time then-U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Joseph Yun was on an official visit.
Last January the Washington Post reported that the Russian government had offered to build a nuclear power plant in North Korea, a notion that Russia’s chief envoy to the DPRK, Alexander Matsegora roundly denied.
Nevertheless, around the same time as Matsegora had downplayed reports of the ostensible Russian offer, Anton Khlopkov asserted that for the Russian government to involve itself in developing a North Korean nuclear infrastructure for civilian use could be part of the wider gambit of the DPRK’s denuclearization.
The possibility of Russian involvement in North Korea’s nuclear industry, even if for peaceful purposes, would underscore the vast gulf in Moscow and Washington’s policies toward Korean denuclearization.
The Russian Federation and the United States, while in principle sharing a common goal of North Korean denuclearization, have widely different methods of achieving that goal
Whereas Moscow, as Khlopkov insinuated earlier this year, may believe cooperation with the DPRK in the nuclear field constitutes a way if ensuring non-proliferation while not completely isolating Pyongyang from the outside world, the U.S. is unlikely to have confidence in controls implemented to ensure that such developments that would occur in cooperation between North Korea and Russia would not pose a proliferation risk.
Indeed, for the U.S., proliferation concerns in terms of North Korea-Russia relations have recently manifested themselves, with the DPRK’s recent test of a short-range missile that bears a notable degree of similarity to Russia’s Iskander missile.
The weapon North Korea tested is reportedly able to circumvent both the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system that is currently deployed in South Korea, as well as the Patriot missile system.
One report insinuated that the missile North Korea recently tested may have been based on an Iskander directly imported from Russia. Others, however have postulated that the Iskander-like technology was stolen from South Korea, given past cooperation on missile technology between the ROK and the Russian Federation.
Whatever the roots of the DPRK’s recently-tested weapon, the fact that it resembles an Iskander highlights the very real proliferation concerns on the Korean peninsula that can be traced back to Russia, even if it were not deliberately exported to North Korea.
The Kim-Putin summit held this past April may go down as simply a footnote in the saga over Korean security. Nevertheless, developments following the gathering between the North Korean and Russian leaders underscore that, for Washington, the Russian Federation’s relations with the DPRK pose several real, if indirect and unintentional, challenges to U.S. interests.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Russia this week may ease some of the U.S.’s concerns regarding the Kremlin’s relations with Pyongyang. Yet just as the Kim-Putin summit did not yield any major developments in Moscow-Pyongyang bilateral ties, neither will America’s top diplomat discussing the DPRK with the Kremlin likely advance stalled Russia-U.S. cooperation over Korean security.
Fundamentally, the Russian Federation and the United States, while in principle sharing a common goal of North Korean denuclearization, have widely different methods of achieving that goal.
The Kim-Putin summit may not have given form to U.S. concerns of Russia playing a “spoiler” role in the Korean security crisis, yet the aftermath of the gathering in Vladivostok does demonstrate the lack of accord between Moscow and Washington in realizing their mutual vision.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA