North Korea’s Pivot to Russia
By John Grisafi
Throughout the past year, there has been a continuous trend in North Korea’s foreign policy: an increasingly amicable relationship between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Russian Federation. Numerous developments show that Moscow is fast becoming Pyongyang’s new preferred foreign benefactor with improvements in their diplomatic, political and economic relationships. This constitutes a significant shift from the past two decades, in which China has been Pyongyang’s only strong supporter.
Close relations between Pyongyang and Moscow are certainly nothing new, with the Soviet Union being the original benefactor of North Korea at the time of its founding in the late 1940s and continuing through the Cold War. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, Russian support for North Korea dwindled. This was a result of lack of both means – especially economic – and strategic necessity on the part of Russia in the 1990s, which was more concerned with rebuilding its own economy. Consequently, the People’s Republic of China became the only large power supporting North Korea, giving Beijing greater influence both in Pyongyang and with North Korea’s enemies when they sought to talk with Pyongyang.
Recently, though, this situation is changing due to an increasing desire and ability by both Pyongyang and Moscow to renew their relationship. Having strengthened its economy, especially through petroleum sales, Russia is now stronger economically. Additionally, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s foreign policy once again puts in an adversarial relationship with the West – adversaries shared by North Korea. Pyongyang, meanwhile, has increasingly sought to diversify its sources of foreign support away from sole reliance upon China, with Russia being the most desirable likely candidate.
Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, explained in a recent editorial that Pyongyang is looking for a return to the Russo-North Korean relationship that existed during the Cold War but was skeptical this will play out as Pyongyang hopes:
“At present, the young marshal has pinned his hopes on Russia - currently itself on a collision course with the West. North Korean leaders obviously believe that Russia under Vladimir Putin will behave like the Soviet Union once did and shower North Korea with aid grants as a reward for Pyongyang's militant anti-Americanism. Such hopes are misplaced, but it will take some time before Pyongyang's decision-makers realize the sad truth.”
During 2014, the DPRK and Russia have made numerous agreements and transactions which show a continuing increase in economic ties. In April Pyongyang and Moscow signed a trade protocol with the aim of increasing annual bilateral trade to $1 billion by 2020, announcing that all bilateral trade will be conducted in Rubles (the Russian currency), and making plans for Russian investment in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the joint economic venture between North and South Korea. Russia also wrote off 90 percent of North Korea’s $10 billion debt to Russia leftover from the Soviet era. The remainder of the debt, equal to $1.09 billion, is to be paid off in installments every six months and will be spent on mutually beneficial projects in the North, including a natural gas pipeline connecting Russia with South Korea via the North. In June, the two countries signed an agreement to reduce barriers for Russian investment into projects in the DPRK, including refurbishing the East Pyongyang thermal power plant and a joint DPRK-Russian project to upgrade North Korea’s railways. This all shows the North Korea is increasingly looking to Moscow as a source of financial and economic support once again.
In addition to economic ties, Pyongyang and Moscow are stepping up their cooperation in general diplomacy and politics. Late 2014 saw visits to Russia by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong in September, and Minister of the People’s Armed Forces Hyon Yong Chol followed by Party Secretary Choe Ryong Hae in November. In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin even extended an invitation for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to visit Russia himself next year. If Kim does visit Russia, it would be his first trip outside North Korea since becoming the country’s leader. Russia and North Korea have also been giving mutual support on the international political stage. Russia has been critical of attempts in the United Nations to refer North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, to the International Criminal Court for allegations of human rights violations. Pyongyang, meanwhile, has been vocal in standing by Russia regarding the situation in Ukraine.
North Korea’s pivot to Russia does not simply constitute an improvement in Russo-DPRK relations, though. The past few years have also seen an ever decreasing reliance by Pyongyang on Beijing, hence making the increasing reliance on Russia somewhat of a shift away from too much dependence on China. Throughout the past three years, the time in which Kim Jong Un has ruled North Korea, China has been much less supportive of North Korea than it was in the past. At the same time, China’s relationship with South Korea has improved. Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit to a foreign country not to North Korea, but to South Korea. This is a significant change from the precedent of other recent Chinese leaders.
Additionally, China and South Korea just recently agreed to sign a free trade agreement. Amidst China’s improving relations with Seoul, North Korea has itself become noticeably colder toward China. Amongst the reasons for the purge of Jang Song Taek and his associates in December 2013 was a perception that he was too close to China. More recently, North Korean officials visiting Russia chose to communicate a willingness to resume Six-Party Talks through Moscow, rather than through Beijing as had previously been the norm. Earlier, in October, Pyongyang chose to publicly mark the 66th anniversary of Russo-North Korean relations, despite making no special mention of the 65th anniversary of Sino-North Korean relations that same month. Finally, Pyongyang declined to invite a Chinese delegation to ceremonies commemorating the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il on December 17.
All of these developments show that North Korea is determined to rekindle its relationship with Russia in the hopes of restoring something resembling the strong Soviet support for Pyongyang during the Cold War. This has less to do with any special affinity or even shared ideology between the two countries and peoples than with geopolitical necessity. Russia is looking to both expand its economic frontiers and influence, including into East Asia, while at the same time looking for new ways to support its increasingly adversarial relationship with western powers such as the United States. Pyongyang, meanwhile, seeks to diversify its sources of strong foreign support and free itself from being overly reliant on China, though it is unlikely to ever dump China as an ally, as that would put it in same predicament with Russia.