Russian Relations with North Korea
The changing relationship between Russia and North Korea has its beginnings when the Soviet Union and China became rivals for influence within the Communist world. In the contemporary context, there is a triangle of complicated relations involving Russia, China and the United States. In an analysis of the history of Russian foreign policy, Michael Mandelbaum quoted former Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who observed that no important international question could be resolved "without the Soviet Union or in opposition to it". While that was the standard during the Soviet era when the Kremlin was routinely opposed to Western initiatives, Russia is well past that powerful situation and now focuses on certain regions as being paramount while others are only peripheral concerns. What we now refer to as Russia’s post-Communist foreign policy began before the collapse of the USSR when Mikhail Gorbachev began to speak of values other than those of Marxism-Leninism as the driving forces of international policy. Under Gorbachev’s “new thinking”, there was a focus on universal values such as a clean environment and not simply the advancement of "international class struggle". For Gorbachev, it was important that the Kremlin be able to cooperate with the West and be integrated into Western institutions that helped shape the international economy. Of course, this innovation eliminated the USSR as the main benefactor of those states which once comprised the “Soviet bloc”. The Brezhnev doctrine was repudiated and the Soviet military would no longer guarantee the maintenance of Communist party regimes in East Europe.
Significance of Trump meeting with Putin
By the end of 2017, tensions between North Korea and the United States – as well as Japan and South Korea – had risen to such a dangerous level that war between the two nations was regarded as likely, if not probable. Pyongyang’s increased nuclear capabilities included a new intercontinental ballistic missile capable, for the first time, of hitting targets on the mainland of the United States. Hostile rhetoric not seen since the height of the Cold War included threats of mutual destruction with newly elected President Donald Trump openly speculating about the complete destruction of North Korea and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un promising the deaths of millions of US citizens.
As a result of President Trump’s North Korean initiative, there was a tremendous improvement of Kim Jong Un’s policy options. The solutions for the DPRK’s problems no longer rested exclusively with Russia and China.
As a result of President Trump’s North Korean initiative, there was a tremendous improvement of Kim Jong Un’s policy options. The solutions for the DPRK’s problems no longer rested exclusively with Russia and China. From Washington’s perspective, American policy was no longer excessively dependent on the idea that only China could persuade Pyongyang to be more restrained in terms of both its nuclear aspirations and its volatile rhetoric.
Putin’s North Korea policy
The Kim rhetoric against the United States was matched by the almost equally intense rhetoric of Vladimir Putin. While partisan accusations of Trump’s domestic adversaries suggested that there was an unholy partnership between the Russian and US Presidents, that highly improbable alliance was not reflected in statements of the two leaders nor was it reflected in their mutual efforts to resist each other’s international ambitions. Early on, the Trump Administration indicated its willingness to provide aid to Ukraine in its efforts to resist Russian moves in the Eastern regions of Ukraine. Even the Azov Regiment, denounced by Moscow as a militant neo-Nazi organization, continued to enjoy the Pentagon’s support. Meanwhile, as will be examined below, Russia continued and even increased its efforts to aid North Korea by helping undermine some of the sanctions imposed against Pyongyang by Washington.
The Soviet conception of the state was based on the premise that the USSR was an embryonic world state and that particularistic nationalisms would fade away.
An examination of Putin’s rise to power provides a useful indication of his ability to secure Russian interests. Chechen unrest was one of the greatest threats to Russian state early in Putin’s first term. When working for Yeltsin, Putin demonstrated his willingness to use brute force to the full necessary extent resulting in the defeat of the Chechen insurgency. In 2003, Putin skillfully utilized political institutions to advance Moscow’s interests and cultivate the former rebel Ramzan Kadyrov who became a pro-Russian asset. Working together, Putin and Kadyrov brought peace and stability to Chechnya. A few years afterward, Putin employed military power against a troublesome Georgia and later turned his attentions to an increasingly Western oriented Ukraine. While there are critics who say that Putin is defining Russia by his own paranoia, few can dispute his skill in blending themes and tactics to develop effective policies. This is the approach that he is taking in dealing with North Korea in such a way as to fend off the apparent pressures of both the United States and China.
Russia as an empire or a nation
Historians have long debated the question of whether Russia is an empire or a conventional national state. How a nation defines itself will determine how it acts in a global arena. The years since the collapse of the USSR have tested Russia’s self-image and posed questions for its foreign policy. The Soviet conception of the state was based on the premise that the USSR was an embryonic world state and that particularistic nationalisms would fade away. This, of course, did not happen and the persistence of non-Russian nationalism was a factor that undermined the Soviet state. While the policies of Gorbachev and Yeltsin represented an effort to get around this problem, by the time of the 1993 parliamentary election, it was apparent that there was an element of neoimperialism in Russian public opinion that was counter to the policy being developed by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. This tendency would later be exploited with great success by Vladimir Putin.
Russian anguish over its loss of empire sparked what Russian specialist Igor Torbakov of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs described in 2018 as “ethnonationalist irredentism and imperial revanchist ambition”
With Putin’s emergence as a key figure in Russian history, it was perhaps inevitable that other nationalisms would constitute a perceived threat to Russian interests. Even before Putin, the concept of Russia’s “near abroad” raised questions about the status of the newly independent post-Soviet states and Moscow’s willingness to accept the sovereignty of those entities.
Russian anguish over its loss of empire sparked what Russian specialist Igor Torbakov of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs described in 2018 as “ethnonationalist irredentism and imperial revanchist ambition”. Whereas regular nation states are able to become members of international organizations, Russia does not fit comfortably within such an entity because it requires member states to accept collective decision making and in so doing surrender a measure of national autonomy. For leaders such as Putin, whose formative years were accomplished during a time of Russian domination of the international organizations of which it was a part, it is hard to accept the notion of Russia as simply another member of a large organization. In fact, the experience of watching the collapse of the Soviet empire seems to have given Putin a hyper-sensitivity about any perceived disparagement of post-Soviet Russia. He often speaks of the Soviet collapse as a great tragedy and recalls his helpless situation as a KGB officer in Dresden who watched a popular uprising against the Communist state and was denied any outside support to ensure the safety of the local KGB compound.
At key points in history, there has been a pronounced Western tendency to see Russia through a Western orientation. A common misunderstanding in international relations or in the foreign policies of many states is what is referred to as “mirror imaging”.
It is, therefore, not surprising that incidents such as Georgia’s defiance of Moscow and the Ukrainian resistance to Russian influence have led Putin to take military actions against Georgia in 2008 and to have occupied Crimea in 2014. Ukraine’s stubborn resistance to Russian military activities in Donbas is a constant reminder of the fact that Russia is seen as the enemy in much of the post-Soviet space. When the Ukrainian government passed a law requiring use of Ukrainian as the language of instruction in educational institutions, it was viewed as simply one more instance of anti-Russian nationalism. Kazakhstan’s rejection of the Cyrillic script in favor of the Latin script was another reminder of the extent to which Russian culture is being denigrated by people who were once Soviet citizens.
Is conflict with Russia inevitable?
At key points in history, there has been a pronounced Western tendency to see Russia through a Western orientation. A common misunderstanding in international relations or in the foreign policies of many states is what is referred to as “mirror imaging”. It is understandably tempting to impart to others the motives which drive us. As World War 2 came to an end, there were some in the United States policy apparatus who believed that the wartime relationship would transform into a postwar partnership in rebuilding war-torn Europe. Colonel William Donovan, head of the American Office of Strategic Services, was so confident of this that he shared the names of OSS intelligence agents in central and Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union’s NKVD. Within days of the war’s end, disputes about the occupation of Berlin and the reorganization of Nazi Germany led to bitterness which led to a year-long Soviet blockade of Berlin and widespread expectation of a new war in Europe. At one point, American occupation authorities in Berlin reported to Washington that “war could come with dramatic suddenness” and that they could expect no more than 48 to 72 hours of advance warning of an actual military attack by the USSR. The work of the US Military Liaison Mission and its British and French counterparts focused on the indications and warnings that might alert NATO forces of Soviet military moves against the West suggesting imminent war.
One important attribute of Russian policy has been its eagerness to exploit opportunities arising from any power vacuum.
Decades later, with the end of the Cold War and optimistic dreams of a “peace dividend”, many Western commentators expected there to be a cordial and helpful US-Russian relationship. In Washington, there was speculation about Russian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an end to the paranoia and suspicion of the Cold War years. Those hopes were dashed as Moscow became increasingly critical of the newly independent states which sought NATO membership and skeptical about such nations participating in the European Union. Even during the Yeltsin years, there were Russians who complained about the paucity of American aid for the Russian Federation and even some Westerners felt that Washington was too aloof in responding to a Russian embrace. With time, there were more and more disputes between the Former USSR and the US and its allies. At the start of the Obama Administration, there was the famous “Reset” sought by the United States and symbolized by Secretary of State Clinton’s presentation of a large Reset button prop to a Russian official who observed that the Russian translation of the word for “reset” was incorrect.
While there has been general disappointment with the state of US-Russian relations, whether in the immediate post-World War 2 environment or in the period following the end of Cold War hostilities, it is important to note that the scope of conflict associated with Russian foreign policy goes beyond these actors and these times in history.
One important attribute of Russian policy has been its eagerness to exploit opportunities arising from any power vacuum. When the Obama Administration hesitated in expanding US presence in the Middle East, Russia was able to create an influential position for itself. Its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a clear example of this. By contrast, Russia has lost influence with much of the post-Communist world. Lithuania, for example, reduced its economic interactions with Russia and 65% of the Lithuanian population view Russia as a political and possible military threat against their nation. Under Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland has also emerged as an adversary of the Putin regime. Even Germany, which vociferously opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has been associated with moves against Moscow.
During this period, Russia has gained influence in the Middle East but also turned its attention to Asia and a growing partnership with China. The two nations have shared certain foreign policy positions – such as opposition to sanctions against Syria – and have increased military cooperation through a series of joint maneuvers. Both have an interest in expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative, something that offers significant benefits to China as well as to Russia.
Russian initiatives in North Korea
While the Soviet Union had an interest in Asia from its earliest days, its relationship became more extensive after 1945. During World War 2, Kim Il Sung served as a major in the Red Army. After the war, the Soviets installed him as head of Korea’s Communist party. When the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was founded in 1948 with Kim Il Sung as its leader, the nation immediately became a close ally – even a puppet – of the Soviet Union. During the Korean War, the Soviet Union was the most important ally and supplier of military equipment for the North. Even China’s sudden military intervention against the United Nations forces did not displace the Soviet Union as the main DPRK supporter. For as long as it existed, the USSR provided North Korea with oil, industrial equipment, medicine, rice and all of the things needed to allow the new Communist party state to survive and grow. During its first two decades, the North Korean economy – thanks to generous subsidies from the Soviets – easily surpassed that of the now overwhelmingly prosperous South Korea. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it could no longer afford such generosity and needed North Korea to repay at least some of their huge debt which, by that time, had grown to over ten billion dollars.
The announcement of a Putin visit to Pyongyang in 2017 was an extremely significant shift in Russian policy. Putin’s two-day visit represented an important step in the restoration of close relations between the two states and brought the promise of an economic cooperation that would strengthen the Kim regime.
In 1990, the Soviets granted diplomatic recognition to South Korea and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union exacerbated the deterioration of the Kremlin’s relationship with Pyongyang. This was also a factor in the famine that hit North Korea in the 1990s. In 1995, Moscow repudiated its military alliance with the North Koreans. While the Kremlin had six summit meetings with South Korea, no Kremlin leader had visited North Korea.
The announcement of a Putin visit to Pyongyang in 2017 was an extremely significant shift in Russian policy. Putin’s two-day visit represented an important step in the restoration of close relations between the two states and brought the promise of an economic cooperation that would strengthen the Kim regime. In particular, Putin stressed Russian interest in helping rebuild the major North Korean industrial facilities – usually built with Soviet technology – that had deteriorated over the years. In addition, Putin announced that the Kremlin was forgiving North Korea’s enormous debt to the Soviet Union.
More importantly, Putin and Kim presumably discussed a plan whereby North Korea could abandon its controversial rocket program. According to Putin, Kim’s intentions are entirely peaceful and all that the North Koreans really need is the opportunity to partner with other nations in order to advance the DPRK space exploration efforts.
Putin’s North Korean overtures are best understood within the context of Russia’s determination to carve out an ambitious global role for itself as a way of asserting the country’s renewed status as a major international actor.
In December 2017, apparently in anticipation of this move toward North Korea, Putin excused Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the 2005 agreement to suspend their nuclear program. The United States, he charged, had imposed additional requirements on North Korea and Washington froze North Korean bank accounts and other assets when Pyongyang rejected the new demands. Kim’s response – a resumption of the nuclear program – was necessary for the DRPK’s self-preservation and, as a result, North Korea now has “a missile that can reach the US”.
Putin’s North Korean overtures are best understood within the context of Russia’s determination to carve out an ambitious global role for itself as a way of asserting the country’s renewed status as a major international actor. They must also be seen as part of a renewed rivalry between Russia and China rather than solely an effort to undermine the United States. The USSR’s collapse eliminated Moscow’s influence over North Korea just as it reduced the Kremlin’s global influence. Moreover, Moscow was no longer able to provide the modern technology and the investments which the regime desperately needed.
Even though China might be less than respectful of North Korea’s sovereignty, it emerged as a more significant partner to such an extent that recent US Administrations came to embrace the idea that only China could exert sufficient influence over Pyongyang to reduce its nuclear ambitions. While that seemed to be a logical assumption, it failed to take into account the fact that the North Koreans resented Chinese efforts to dictate to their leadership. In fact, when both China and Russia were critical of the DPRK’s hydrogen bomb test in December 2017, it was a reminder of Pyongyang’s resentment at both of these allies.
While it is important to recognize the conflicting Russian and Chinese interests with regard to North Korea, the two states share common interests that are equally if not more important. Most important is the fact that both Beijing and Moscow need to limit US influence with regard to the region. As the Trump Administration dramatically reversed its policy toward North Korea when it arranged a joint meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un in 2018, there was suddenly more focus on a positive US-DPRK relationship than on the prospect of Washington’s utilization of a military option. For the first time, there could actually be international discussions about previously unthinkable scenarios involving cooperation between North and South Korea if not eventual unification under peaceful terms. Such developments would seriously undercut the positions of both China and Russia in Asia.
An examination of Russian involvement with North Korea today is not an issue of bilateral relations. At stake is the relationship between Russia, North Korea, China, and the United States. It is an equation that will determine the configuration of power throughout Asia.
Russian relations with North Korea are heavily influenced by other nations, especially China and the United States. In 2018 alone, Russia has had very interesting interactions with both China and the United States. Beijing has continued to expand its international influence and Russia has established significant energy and military cooperation with China and discussed how to handle the missile crisis in North Korea. However, China has not been able to come to a full agreement with Russia on this issue.
As the Trump Administration dramatically reversed its policy toward North Korea when it arranged a joint meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un in 2018, there was suddenly more focus on a positive US-DPRK relationship than on the prospect of Washington’s utilization of a military option.
On the Western front, President Trump has blamed the presidents before him for the difficult relationship between the US and Russia. Needless to say, the relationship between the US and Russia has been complicated in the past due to ideological, political and strategic differences. The US-Russian relationship in the past was colored by the sharp ideological differences. American distrust of Russia, however, continued even after the fall of the Marxist-Leninist USSR. However, President Trump said at the Helsinki summit meeting with Putin that “getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing”. Accordingly, even while maintaining sanctions against Moscow, President Trump is working to forge better relations with Russia.
In spite of that, President Trump stresses an “America First” agenda. As part of this policy, President Trump is making decisions and choosing alliances that will aid in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear missile program. Putin could cease his initiatives in North Korea by cooperating with the US in working for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, believed it was important for the Kremlin to cooperate with the West in the pursuit of shared objectives. Indeed, Russia will be much better able to accomplish what it needs to with the US as an ally rather than an enemy. It remains to be seen if Russia values opportunities in North Korea more than a productive relationship with the United States.
Photo Credit: en.kremlin.ru