Through the second half of the twentieth century, North Korea’s communist regime managed to survive in large part thanks to the backing of its key ally, the USSR. Post-Cold War Russia later modified its position toward its old Cold War ally, and bilateral relations became damaged when the then-USSR established diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1990. Under Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, however, North Korea-Russia relations have gradually improved. In 2000, Putin visited Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang, where the two leaders signed a treaty on the normalization of bilateral relations after a decade of strained relations. Now, North Korea-Russia relations have gone a step further, in that Russia has made some favorable economic concessions to the North, which may indicate the beginnings of a deeper partnership once again. This may be especially important for the North, as relations between China and North Korea have been on the rocks lately, due in part to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
North Korea-Russia: Economic Ties, Nuclear Implications
More recently, Russia has agreed to conduct trade with North Korea in rubles and write off 90% of the country’s foreign debt. In return, North Korea has agreed to make it easier for Russian businesses to operate in the country. The West’s attempt to isolate Russia is pushing the latter to look for partners outside of the Western sphere of influence. Russia’s re-calibrated relations with North Korea, also known as the DPRK, may prove to be a setback for North Korean disarmament. This may be true especially as China grows weary of the North’s nuclear activities and seeks to strengthen ties with South Korea. It is in Russia’s interests for North Korea to disarm, but the recent rapprochement between the two countries may mean that Russia is more tolerant of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons complex, and strengthened economic ties may bring North Korea an increased cash-flow to support its WMD.
The economic sanctions against North Korea may arguably not have had very much effect hindering the country’s nuclear program seeing as North Korea’s meagre economic assets have always been diverted to the benefit of the military. This is especially true in light of the economic implications of North Korea’s songun (“military first” policy), which has greatly benefitted from North Korea’s nuclear posturing, for under songun, the North Korean military has always been the primary beneficiary of state funding because of the military’s central role in the survival of the North Korean regime. Because of the profound ties between the military and the national economy under the provisions of songun, increased economic links between North Korea and Russia will inevitably have implications for the North’s nuclear program, as it will likely provide an extra source of funding for an otherwise cash-starved economy.
Russia’s Changing Role in Korean Disarmament
Russia has actually played a positive role in multilateral nuclear negotiations with the DPRK. It was Russia that initially suggested a series of talks involving six regional parties (China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the U.S.) which would eventually culminate in the so-called Six Party Talks. At first the suggestion was dismissed by both China and the U.S., who saw Russia’s presence as an unnecessary distraction. It was only when the United States invited Japan to the negotiating table that Kim Jong Il specifically requested that Russia be allowed to participate as well. It seems that North Korea wanted a more balanced composition of negotiators at the talks.
The Six Party Talks have since collapsed, and their revival would likely only exacerbate the geopolitical contention between China, Russia and the US- indeed Chinese and American differences over North Korea have only served North Korea’s interests. As the West continues to alienate Russia over Ukraine, Russia’s inchoate focus on deepening ties with its Asian partners may lead to new geopolitical divisions in Northeast Asia. In the past, despite the US not wishing for a Russian presence at the talks, Russia and the United States shared a mutual desire for any discussions on the North Korean nuclear issue to be multilateral in nature. US acquiescence to having Russia participate in negotiations seems to have been made easier by the fact that Russia and the US had more mutually aligned interests after 9/11. Now, however, that Russia’s relationship with the US has soured on a variety of fronts, and their mutual interests have diminished, it seems increasingly unlikely that Russia will want to assist American interests in weakening North Korea. This may be especially true if South Korea doesn’t go along with the sanctions regime against Russia, meaning that Russia will continue to have a sound trade partner in South Korea while at the same time be able to continue to improve its relations with the North, to the detriment of the interests of its American rival.
Korea scholar Andrei Lankov, in his recently published book The Real North Korea, states that North Korea’s nuclear program is not an end in and of itself, but is a political tool used in “survival diplomacy”. North Korea’s post-Cold War isolationism has made nuclear weapons an even more potent tool in gaining international aid and attention, by means of North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship- in essence, North Korea threatens the use of nuclear weapons in order to gain economic aid or at least the attention of the international community. A revival in DPRK-Russia relations would likely mean that North Korea would once again be less isolated on the global stage. As Gerald Curtis asserts, there is little lost love between China and North Korea, but China is loath to see a reunified Korea that could serve as a base for a US military presence along its borders. The same could be argued, albeit to a lesser extent, for Russia. Russia may not necessarily like North Korea and its nuclear weapons, but would prefer a nuclear Pyongyang to a reunified Korea in which the US would have a direct military presence in a country on Russia’s border (as small as the Korea-Russia border is), as well as a greater ability to project naval force along Russia’s littoral with the Sea of Japan.
As such, a less isolated North Korea will likely have more diplomatic leverage, and it’s possible that Russia may be more tolerant of North Korea’s nuclear program. To be sure, as Russia’s ties to North Korea are recalibrated, Russia may be able to once again take an important role in encouraging North Korea to get rid of its WMD complex. Inducing North Korea to disarm may help deflect strategic attention from the Asia-Pacific region, but at the moment it seems that there is more strategic attention on the part of the West toward Eastern Europe anyway. Thus, a lack of attention to Northeast Asia combined with a greater potential source of revenue for the DPRK’s nuclear weapons complex may make it more difficult to pressure the North into giving up its armaments.
(These are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BASIC).