Russia and North Korea share a short border but a long history.
When the United States and the Soviet Union drew the seemingly innocuous line dividing the Korean peninsula in 1953, it was regarded as a temporary administrative division for processing Japanese forces after World War II.
However, since then, Russia (and its Soviet Union predecessor) have been ensnared in the fate of the hermit Communist state.
Technically in an interminable ceasefire with North Korea, South Korea has relied on the clout of the US to negotiate with North Korea.
Along with China, the US and South Korea have been vacillating between offering economic carrots, brandishing economic sticks and threatening strong military retaliation to any provocations; all with the hope of inducing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme, reconcile with South Korea, and reform its economy.
For much of these negotiations, Russia’s voice has been largely marginalised. Its influence on the worldstage, viewed on the peninsula as insignificant compared to the two superpowers that grew from the ashes of the Cold War.
Over the last 25 years Russia has had minimal success influencing Pyongyang’s actions. In 1990, the Soviet Union’s collapse and the halt of aid to North Korea directly precipitated the catastrophic 1994 – 1998 famine in the struggling socialist state. Throughout the 1990s, the newly formed Russian Federation under President Boris Yeltsin chose closer ties with South Korea over deepening relations with the North, ultimately resulting in lackluster relations between the two countries. During the Party of Six talks, held in the early 2000s, Russia did not have an influential voice or much leverage to offer in return for North Korea dismantling its nuclear programme.
Russia’s trade with North Korea in the past decade pales in comparison with North Korean trade with its other regional neighbours.
Russia’s push to end the stalemate
Thus far, pressure placed on North Korea by China, South Korea and the US has abjectly failed in its objective to stop nuclear proliferation under the Kim dynasty. Despite economic, military and political opprobrium, North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state.
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, argues that this is never going to change.
Putin has been proposing alternative Korean strategies to the US approach of peninsula reunification. Given the gridlock between Beijing and Washington – despite President Trump’s constant assurances that China has the power and the will to “easily” contain the Kim dynasty – the Russian government has been increasingly vocalising its renewed commitment to North Korean diplomatic negotiations.
Speaking at a September 2017 BRICS summit in China, Putin argued that the North Korean would be willing to “eat grass” rather than yield to international pressure, stating:
“Ramping up military hysteria in such conditions is senseless; it’s a dead end. It could lead to a global, planetary catastrophe and a huge loss of human life. There is no other way to solve the North Korean nuclear issue, save that of peaceful dialogue.”
Why Putin wants to get involved?
One potent reason for Russia’s desire to increasingly insert itself into the North Korean issue has nothing to do with North Korea.
A fear which Russia shares with China, relates to the US and its sphere of influence in Asia. Most of the tenable scenarios concerning Korean reunification involve South Korea takes over North Korea, under the auspices of the US, mirroring the way West Germany subsumed East Germany in 1990.
Putin sees North Korea in the same light he views Syria under Bashir-al Assad and Libya under Muammar Gaddafi. All these dictators are (or were in the case of Libya) vulnerable to military intervention led by the US or domestic uprisings fomented and supported by Western powers.
Putin has railed against any precedent in which a foreign power can encroach on another country’s sovereignty (ironic considering he orchestrated the invasion of Ukraine 2014 Georgia 2008 … and the democratic process surrounding the US Presidential Election 2016). As a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, Russia has constantly vetoed any actions that involve international intervention and supported Syria in the Civil war which began out of the Arab Spring protests in 2010.
Putin’s biggest fear is an Arab Spring or Colour Revolution-style uprising in his country. He has manipulated Russia’s constitutional laws in order to remain in power. Potentially he can reign as head of state until the mid-2020s. He fears the tinder box of mass protests in Russia against his undemocratic rule, epecially as living standards of the average Russian citizen have fallen since the advent of the Western sanctions in retaliation to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Absolute soverign autonomy and non-interference as international canons is a guiding princple of Putin in his foreign relations calculations.
Sanctions cannot succeed
For Russia, sanctions that successfully force North Korea either to alter its military choices or precipitate regime change would set an unacceptable precedent.
Unsurprisingly, Putin has argued that he has yet to see any positive impact from July 2017 UN sanctions against Pyongyang. The sanctions passed the UN with a unanimous 15-0 UN Security Council vote and cover ban on coal, iron, and lead exports – a major source of foreign currency for Pyongyang – with the potential to cut North Korea’s state’s $3 billion annual export revenue by a third. However, Russia questions their effectiveness.
Speaking at the BRICS meeting in China, Putin argued that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un would have his people “eat grass” before giving up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
Russia itself has suffered under widespread sanctions imposed by Western countries since 2014. However, it has demonstrated its willingness to endure economic hardships for political reasons.
Russia argues that diplomatic negotiations must take place instead of harsh sanctions. Putin has argued that sanctions will not force Kim to the table. It is futile to expect North Korea to rescind its nuclear arsenal, calling such attempts to get the regime of Kim Jong Un to cease its nuclear program “a dead-end road.”
In fact, a September 2017 article from the Washington Post found that Russian actors are quietly undermining sanctions intended to stop North Korea’s nuclear programme, smuggling oil and other emarbgoed supplies into North Korea over their 17 kilometer landed border.
Russia is once again – as its Soviet Union precedesor before – becoming a lifeline for the survival of the North Korean Kim regime. Beyond the flouting of international UN sanctions, Russia is making various overtures to increase its stake in the North Korean economy; Russia is one of the largest donors of food aid to North Korea. In 2014, the Russian duma forgave North Korea’s Soviet-era debt, totalling nearly $10 billion.
As China and South Korea have increased the density of their economic and political ties in recent years (despite the year long embargoes in retaliation to THAAD deployment), and as Russia endeavours to reconfigure the geopolitical dynamics and allegiances in the region, this may lead to unanticipated shifts in the regional calculus. Will Russia be able to neuter any potential impacts of the internationl sanction regime? Will it be able to bolster the North Korea state’s status quo as a nuclear state? Will it cause the US to retreat from Asia, a highly desired outcome for Putin’s foreign policy goals.
As Putin styles the Russian Federation as an assertive and influencial player on the world stage, it is placing itself as pivotal player in the North Korean issue. In the same way that Russia is using its military influence to keep Assad in power in Syria, it appears Putin is trying to recreate the Soviet Union’s formers status as a formidable superpower in the new multipolar world, able to contend with China and US.
Realistically, unification on the Korean peninsula will not happen unless China wants it to. As it stands today, it appears that Beijing does not have any desire to welcome US troops to its southern border. Despite the current impasse, South Korea and the US have formally adopted the goal of unification, and have seemingly hunkered down to await a North Korean collapse. The stalemate continues to ossify.
So, as Kim Jong-un shows no sign of undertaking economic reforms or opening to the south, Russia will continue to thwart internatonal sanctions, rail against international intervention and support the North Korean regime. The ultimate goal, it would appear is to halt what it views as US hegemonic and expansionist objectives and to discredit sanctions as a weapon that states can use against other soverign countries to influence their actions.