UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


DPRK - Relations with Russia

North Korea owes its survival as a separate political entity to China and the Soviet Union. Both countries provided critical military assistance—personnel and matériel—during the Korean War. Thinking that the West would not defend the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Stalin allowed or encouraged the Soviet-equipped forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) to invade South Korea in 1950. But forces from the United States and other members of the United Nations came to the aid of South Korea, leading China to intervene militarily on behalf of North Korea, probably on Soviet instigation.

China provided North Korea with arms and assistance, and the PLA and the Korean People's Army developed close ties because of their association in the Korean War. In 1961 China and North Korea signed a mutual defense agreement, and Chinese-North Korean military cooperation continued in the late 1980s. In the 1960s and 1970s, China began developing military ties with Third World nations in Asia and Africa, while maintaining or promoting cooperation with North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and Albania. Chinese military cooperation with North Korea and North Vietnam stemmed from security considerations.

Although Chinese leaders publicly professed not to be concerned, the Soviet base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, Soviet provision of MiG-23 fighters to North Korea, and Soviet acquisition of overflight and port calling rights from North Korea intensified Chinese apprehension about the Soviet threat.

Until the early 1990s, China and the Soviet Union both were North Korea’s most important markets and its major suppliers of oil and other basic necessities. Similarly, China and the Soviet Union were reliable pillars of diplomatic support. Moscow and Beijing’s normalization of diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1990 and 1992, respectively, presaged a sea change in North Korea’s foreign policy. Despite the professed chuch’e ideology, Soviet and Chinese patronage to the North constituted mainstays of the economy. When both Cold War patrons terminated this support on normalization of relations with Seoul, the North’s economy began to register negative growth rates for much of the rest of the decade. Famine conditions in the mid-1990s were also partially a consequence of the North’s loss of aid from its patrons.

P’yongyang’s relations with the Soviet Union and then Russia were permanently damaged. Moscow’s abrupt shedding of the North as Russia sought to gain access to US$3 billion in loans from the wealthier South Korea (as part of its 1990 diplomatic normalization with Seoul) greatly offended Kim Il Sung.

The Soviet Union stunned North Korea in September 1990 when it established diplomatic relations with South Korea. Since then and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991, North Korea has worked to build a relationship with Russia’s new political leaders. North Korea’s efforts to recapture some of the previous closeness and economic benefits of its relationship with the former Soviet Union are seriously hampered, however, by Russia’s preoccupation with its own political and economic woes.

Trade between the two countries dropped dramatically since 1990, as North Korea cannot compete with the quality of goods South Korea can offer. Whereas in the past the Soviet Union had readily extended credit to North Korea, Russia has demanded hard currency for North Korea’s purchases. Russia also has signaled North Korea that it intends to revise a 1961 defense treaty between North Korea and the Soviet Union. The revision most likely meant that Russia will not be obligated to assist North Korea militarily except in the event that North Korea is invaded.

When economic conditions deteriorated in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) in the mid-1990s, the North Korean government allowed thousands of carefully chosen guest workers to find manual jobs in Vladivostok and other parts of the Russian Far East. As North Korean guest workers have sought asylum in Russia, the question of their repatriation has caused Russia a difficult diplomatic problem in its relations with North Korea and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), in view of Russia's intensified efforts to expand commercial ties with South Korea without alienating putative ally North Korea. Korean arrivals in Russia from Central Asia and from North Korea receive support from the Association of Ethnic Koreans and from South Korea. Another Korean émigré organization, the United Confederation of Koreans in Russia, lends vocal support to North Korea in its disputes with South Korea. Tensions between the two Korean populations were very strong by 1996. Russian migration officials feared a much larger influx of North Koreans if the North Korean government collapsed.

Russia lost its influence on North Korea in the early 1990s. Although there was a brief attempt to recover lost ground in the late 1990s that culminated in Putin's 2000 visit to Pyongyang, the DPRK's subsequent backtracking on a promise to Putin to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic carrots "made a fool" out of the Russian government. Since then, Russia has not made further meaningful attempts to regain influence over North Korea. Moscow is not interested in spending more money to buy over a regime just because it is anti-US, especially given North Korea's existing $8 billion Soviet-era debt to Russia.

Putin's visit to Pyongyang, immediately before his participation in the 2000 Okinawa G-8 Summit, triggered a more serious awareness of North Korea among the Russian public. Russia had a sluggish attitude at earlier Six-Party meetings, where it hid behind China. The turning point came in May 2007, with the resolution of the Banco Delta Asia dispute, where the impasse caused by the US Treasury's freezing of the North's assets had been unlocked through the GOR's successful brokering, freeing the Six-Party Process to resume in July. Russia, which to that point had no "special role" in the Process, suddenly felt that it had made a small but meaningful contribution. Both official and non-official circles believe that a peaceful solution on the peninsula was in Russia's interests. For one thing, Russia would be one of the beneficiaries of the economic opportunities that would emerge, such as the linking of the Trans-Korea and Trans-Siberia railways. Chufrin reminded us that the Six-Party Process was one of those "rare" international fora where the US and Russia cooperated well, and where Russia did not object to US initiatives.

Access to southern ice-free ports, including those on the Korean peninsula, has been a dream of Russian Railways since the Soviet Union lost the use of Port Arthur (Lushun) to Japanese-administered Manchukuo (Manchuria) in the Russo-Japanese War. While the ports of Vladivostok and Vostochniy operate year-round, they may ice over in winter.

In 2008 Russian and North Korean officials signed an agreement to renovate the railroad linking the two countries and to jointly develop the North Korean port of Najin to handle major container cargos. The move, which has been anticipated for years, is seen as the first step in upgrading the entire Trans-Korean Railway (TKR) to allow for direct overland freight deliveries between South Korea and Europe. Not everyone was thrilled about the agreement, however. Some were concerned that Najin, with its cheap labor and newer infrastructure, will draw business away from existing Russian Far East (RFE) ports, further isolating Pacific Russia from the rest of the country. They would prefer to see the government invest in modernizing existing RFE ports. Given the economic uncertainties, some analysts assume that the real driving force behind the development of Najin and the TKR is political: that is, competition with China for influence in northeast Asia. Regardless of its motivations, the fact that announcements about Russian-Korean railway cooperation have over the years far outpaced actual construction, it does not seem likely that the TKR will be completed any time soon.

While Russia was interested in North Korea for economic and nuclear non-proliferation reasons, it had neither the capabilities nor the desire to play a more key role on the Korean Peninsula or to compete against US interests there. Despite Russian interests in nuclear non-proliferation on the Korean Peninsula and participation in the Six Party talks, Russia no longer maintains influence over North Korea the way the Soviet Union did.

On most world maps, Vladivostok appears tucked right into Northern China and North Korea. In reality, Russia, North Korea and China come together in Khasan, some 295 kilometers by car from Vladivostok on the other side of Amur Bay. In winter, locals take the shortcut across the bay on the ice. The flow of goods from Russia to North Korea is greatly reduced from the Soviet-North Korean heyday in the 1980's. For the most part, the border is quiet, but twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, North Korean workers disembark from a one-wagon train for onward assignment to labor in Russia's forests, construction sites, and fish processing factories.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived 24 April 2019 in the far eastern port city of Vladivostok of Russia for his first ever meeting with Vladimir Putin, which Kim said was the initial step toward closer ties with Moscow. The North Korean leader made the short trip to Vladivostok via his signature armored green and yellow train. With Putin’s own economy hurting, it isn’t clear that North Korea is a priority. And without buy-in from the United States, it is not clear how much he could do anyway. Russia-North Korea trade fell dramatically in 2018, by more than 56 percent to $34 million. This is primarily due to the fact that Russia is forced to follow international sanctions that were imposed on the DPRK. By contrast, North Korea was earning about $100 million a year in hard currency from the South Korean sponsored Kaesong Industrial complex before it closed.

Their meeting was not expected to result in the leaders signing any agreements or making a joint statement. Putin was not likely to play the role of spoiler in the North Korea-U.S. talks, in part because he doesn’t have much leverage over Pyongyang.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he believed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un could give up his nuclear weapons if he first receives security guarantees. Putin also advocated a phased approach to denuclearization, in which the United States and North Korea slowly take steps to build trust. “If we move step-by-step with respect for each others’ interests, then this goal can be achieved in the final end," Putin said.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 25-04-2019 14:44:36 ZULU