Amid a prolonged stalemate in relations between North Korea and the United States, Pyongyang is reaching out to Russia for closer ties, following its similar move to strengthen relations with China.
According to North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, leader Kim Jong-un sent a congratulatory message to Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 9 on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II. It is the first time in five years for the North Korean leader to send such a message to the Russian president. Here is political commentator Lee Jong-hoon with more.
In the message, Kim Jong-un praised Russia for winning a great victory in the great war of justice to destroy fascism. He said North Korea and Russia established a friendship with feelings of comrade-in-arms in the sacred war against the common enemies, indicating the close military relations between the two countries. He wished Putin and his people a sure victory in the struggle to build a strong Russia and to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kim is obviously seeking to get closer to neighboring countries such as China and Russia.
On May 17, a North Korean news propaganda site called DPRK Today stressed, again, friendship between Pyongyang and Moscow. It said that the two countries are developing bilateral ties further, overcoming all kinds of challenges and hardships, based on the precious tradition of friendship built with feelings of comrade-in-arms. So, why does North Korea let its media outlets highlight its close relations with Russia?
I think North Korea considers the possibility of an improvement in its relations with the U.S. Some analysts say that a third North Korea-U.S. summit could take place in the not-so-distant future, noting that U.S. President Donald Trump has sent a positive signal to North Korea as of late. Of course, the third summit, if realized, should produce tangible results. When dealing with its relations with Washington, Pyongyang needs some sort of leverage. So far, North Korea has used military provocations, long-range missile launches or nuclear tests.
But if these extreme actions are no longer effective, North Korea has no other choice but to resort to diplomacy. It may attempt to improve relations with the U.S. by using China and Russia.
In addition to this political purpose, North Korea also needs to restore its trade with Russia quickly. Border trade between the two countries has reportedly shrunken drastically in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, dealing a heavy blow to North Korea.
On May 13, Voice of America reported that trade between North Korea and Russia fell sharply in February, compared to the same period of last year. According to relevant data, North Korea’s exports to Russia in February stood at a mere 8,000 US dollars, down nearly 96 percent year-on-year.
North Korea’s exports to Russia in February declined significantly from 140-thousand dollars in the previous month and 196-thousand dollars in the same month of last year. For North Korea, Russia is the second-largest trade partner, following China. Also, North Korea has sent its laborers to Russia to earn foreign currency. But this method, too, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. Pyongyang finds it urgent to get its trade with Russia back on track.
Kim and Putin held their first summit in April last year in the Russian far eastern city of Vladivostok. Afterwards, the two countries have strengthened cooperation for the dispatch of North Korean workers to Russia and for the issue of easing U.N. sanctions on the North. The two sides have also engaged in high-level exchanges in military and economic areas.
In November last year, then-North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, one of the key officials involving nuclear negotiations with the U.S., visited Moscow to discuss strategic cooperation with Russia’s Foreign Ministry officials on regional and international affairs. It was the first time that the two countries held talks in the form of “strategic dialogue.”
Pyongyang and Moscow have since enhanced cooperation in various areas to cement bilateral ties.
It would be fair to say that Russia played the most decisive role in giving birth to the North Korean regime. When troops from the Soviet Union occupied the northern half of the Korean Peninsula after Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, Kim Il-sung, who led the anti-Japanese guerilla forces and engaged in military activities under the Soviet Union, was chosen as the leader of North Korea. The Soviet Union also supplied military weapons to North Korea during the Korean War. So, historically, there is an inextricable link between North Korea and Russia.
For Kim Jong-un, it is necessary to use Russia to reinforce relations with China. North Korea adopts the diplomacy of equidistance between China and Russia by maintaining good relations with both countries. It might look like a dangerous tightrope walk, but the North Korean leader will inevitably resort to such diplomacy to elicit support from both countries.
In the economic area, many analysts believe that North Korean workers will create a win-win situation between North Korea and Russia. The former can earn foreign money by providing labor, which helps the latter reduce labor costs considerably.
North Korean laborers are working in various fields in Russia, including lumber camps, construction sites and farms. North Korea probably hopes to export a lot more workers to Russia to bring in foreign currency.
Russia, for its part, is greatly interested in exporting its gas to South Korea via North Korea in the hopes of developing its northeastern region, which remains relatively underdeveloped. That’s why it pays close attention to a project of linking the Trans Siberian Railway with a cross-border inter-Korean railroad.
North Korea also seeks to use Russia as leverage to raise its bargaining power in the stalled nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and to find out ways to get sanctions eased. Trump advocates stronger sanctions against North Korea to pressure the North to implement denuclearization. But Putin stresses the need for easing sanctions on North Korea, in response to its faithful fulfillment of obligations.
North Korea needs to use China and Russia as its supporters. Both countries, the veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, can certainly contribute to easing sanctions on the North. If North Korea-U.S. relations improve and if the U.S. moves to ease sanctions, although it may be difficult to see this happen right now, China and Russia may actively cooperate for the initiative at the U.N. Security Council. For North Korea, that couldn’t be better.
It is possible that North Korea may get closer to China and Russia, while stalling for time in its negotiations with the U.S. and inter-Korean dialogue. If that happens, what should the South Korean government do?
As always, South Korea will be wary of closer relations between North Korea and China and between Russia. That’s because China and Russia may request South Korea to do something by using the situation. Unlike in the past, though, both China and Russia have become more dependent on South Korea economically. Seoul may use this point. It could also adopt the equidistance diplomacy between Russia and North Korea. Maintaining tense relations with both countries to some extent, South Korea might attempt to improve relations with North Korea, resolve the nuclear issue and induce the North to turn into a normal state.
Amid the drawn-out denuclearization talks and the economic crisis, North Korea will likely continue to make active efforts to promote relations with Russia. The South Korean government should stay alert and watch the situation carefully so its cross-border programs involving North Korea may not face a setback.