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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.
Update at 0900 KST: A previous version of this article referred to Choe Ryong Hae as First Vice Foreign Minister, when in fact Choe Son Hui holds that position. It also featured two historical errors, which have also been corrected.
Sunday, February 9th marked the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Friendship, Good-neighborliness and Cooperation between the DPRK and the Russian Federation.
The treaty, which was signed in February 2000, heralded a new era in North Korea-Russia relations. Two decades on, however, how much have Moscow and Pyongyang achieved in their new partnership?
To answer this question, we should analyze the North Korea-Russia relationship as far back as the late Soviet period.
From the late 1980s, the USSR sought to develop ties with South Korea, a rising economic power that could provide a liberalizing Soviet economy with much-needed foreign investment.
Up to that point, Moscow viewed the DPRK as a strategic asset not only against the United States but also in the context of the Sino-Soviet rivalry of the 1960s.
North Korea was nonplussed by Moscow’s decision to pursue closer ties with Seoul, and the nature of Moscow-Pyongyang relations only worsened when the newly-established Russian Federation was not supportive of the DPRK during the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the mid-1990s.
In 1995, the Russian Federation officially suggested a new agreement to replace the 1961 Soviet-DPRK Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, which had served as the basis of Moscow-Pyongyang ties.
Given that Russian foreign policy is primarily preoccupied with the security of its periphery, under Boris Yeltsin Russia’s decision to allow ties with the DPRK to decline can best be understood through the fact that Moscow viewed North Korea as a liability following the latter’s nuclear breakout.
Ultimately, however, Russian policymakers viewed the downturn in DPRK-Russia relations as an unfortunate development.
Although the Kremlin to this day laments North Korea’s possession of WMD, under Vladimir Putin Russia’s North Korea policy took a new direction. It emphasized the necessity for the Russian Federation to have, if not influence, at the very least working relations with the Korean state directly on its periphery.
Thus, in 2000, one of newly-inaugurated Vladimir Putin’s first state visits abroad was to Pyongyang, where he set in motion the beginnings of a new DPRK-Russia relationship.
The following year, during Kim Jong Il’s visit to the Russian capital, North Korea and the Russian Federation implemented the Moscow Declaration, a bilateral agreement that outlined Moscow and Pyongyang’s amendment to pursue a global agenda based on shared values.
The kickstart to DPRK-Russia relations between 2000-2001, however, has led to considerably modest developments in North Korea and Russia’s bilateral relationship.
To be sure, it is not entirely for want of trying that Moscow-Pyongyang ties remain relatively underdeveloped. The DPRK declared 2015 to be a “Year of Friendship” with Russia, while during North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui’s most recent visit to Moscow in late 2019, a “golden age” in North Korea-Russia relations was declared.
Part of this is due to the fact that in spite of the initial enthusiasm with which the Kremlin sought to reverse the stagnation of North Korea-Russia ties, the Korean peninsula still has relatively low standing in Moscow’s foreign policy priorities.
From Pyongyang’s end of the relationship, compared with China, the Russian Federation has relatively little to offer the DPRK, which may explain the lackluster conclusion of the Kim Jong Un-Vladimir Putin summit in April 2019.
In spite of the structural factors that impede DPRK-Russia relations, Moscow itself is quick to point to a different culprit, namely the United States.
The nature of sanctions indirectly underscores a different aspect of Moscow’s thwarted interests on the Korean peninsula: a dearth of leverage in North Korean denuclearization
The Russian government, in spite of consistently voting in favor of UN sanctions, has long called for sanctions relief for the DPRK, citing supposed concerns over the negative humanitarian effects punitive economic measures have reportedly caused.
The detrimental effect on North Korea-Russia economic relations sanctions have had is never far from the views Russian officials have repeatedly expressed.
In a recent interview with Russian media outlet TASS, Russian ambassador to the DPRK Alexander Matsegora noted that Russian companies are wary of doing business with North Korean firms because of sanctions. This goes not only for UN sanctions but also for U.S.-imposed secondary sanctions, which the Russian Federation does not recognize as legitimate.
Indeed, recent trade statistics paint a bleak picture of DPRK-Russia economic ties. After hovering at approximately 80 million dollars a year between 2013 and 2017, annual trade between North Korea and Russia plummeted in 2018. By November 2019, third quarter DPRK-Russia trade for that year amounted to just over 38 million dollars.
The issue of sanctions, in addition to being a perennial source of friction between Russia and the United States over North Korean denuclearization as well as an impediment to the North Korea-Russia relationship itself, in fact underscores the dual nature of the Kremlin’s interests in the pursuit of closer ties with the DPRK.
On the one hand, a robust DPRK-Russia relationship is important for the Kremlin’s economic interests in the Russian Far East.
At the same time, the nature of sanctions indirectly underscores a different aspect of Moscow’s thwarted interests on the Korean peninsula: a dearth of leverage in North Korean denuclearization.
The Kremlin has a vested interest in the DPRK’s denuclearization, although it differs significantly from the United States in both its threat assessment and approach.
As Dmitri Trenin has written, the Kremlin has lower expectations than Washington over the possibility of North Korean denuclearization, and views Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons as less of a threat to Russian security than the U.S. views the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities as endangering its own national security.
Although the Russian Federation has in the past explicitly stated that it wishes to cooperate with the U.S. on North Korean denuclearization, Washington has long been less than enthusiastic about the utility of cooperation with the Russian Federation, diplomatic platitudes notwithstanding.
One of the most likely reasons why Washington has not been particularly keen on cooperation with the Russian Federation on North Korean denuclearization, in addition to the aforementioned differences in Russian and American views, is the relative lack of Russian economic leverage over the DPRK.
Yes, large numbers of North Korean workers were, until recently, in Russia, and the Russian government has been quick to assert both its compliance with UN sanctions calling for their removal as well as defend the continued presence of approximately one thousand DPRK citizens on Russian soil.
Nevertheless, the lack of Russian economic clout in North Korea, especially when compared with China, likely means that, in accordance with the American agenda of placing pressure on the North Korean government through sanctions, Russia is of relatively little service to U.S. interests.
In spite of the structural factors that impede DPRK-Russia relations, Moscow itself is quick to point to a different culprit, namely the United States
While sanctions have certainly stunted the growth of DPRK-Russia relations, one cannot ignore the fact that the downturn in North Korea-Russia ties in the early post-Cold War years is the ultimate culprit in the weakening of North Korea-Russia economic exchanges.
Twenty years after the formal revival of the Moscow-Pyongyang relationship, ties between the two states can certainly not be said to have reached a degree to either side’s liking. Russia remains a relatively marginal player in efforts aimed at North Korean denuclearization, and economic ties between the two don’t serve either country’s interests.
Furthermore, North Korea remains overwhelmingly dependent on China for economic and diplomatic support. Pyongyang would most likely prefer to be able to lean on Moscow as an alternative to Beijing, allowing Pyongyang political wiggle room.
At the same time, the DPRK-Russia relationship has recovered at a reasonable rate over the past two decades.
Given that the driving force behind Russia’s revitalized relationship with North Korea, Vladimir Putin, is set to stay in power past the end of his mandate in 2024, it appears that, barring major breakthroughs in Korea’s security environment, DPRK-Russia ties will continue their track of slow but steady development.
Edited by James Fretwell