North Korea-Russia Defense Relations: Drivers and Developments

By | March 02, 2016 | No Comments

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The Russian economy is in trouble. Flat-lining natural resource prices and geopolitical instability — of Vladimir Putin’s making, at least in the Crimea — have brought international sanctions and a central bank decision to abandon all thoughts of protecting the Ruble. There has been an economic cost to that choice, of course: According to Bloomberg, the Russian currency has lost a quarter of its value against the dollar since early 2015, consumer price inflation is uncomfortably high, and volatility — the bête noire of business and consumer confidence — is rife. Nobody can be sure what the state of affairs will be this time next month, let alone next year. The economy contracted 3.7 percent in 2015, and the government has started talking about privatizing firms like Rosneft and Aeroflot, implying a pressing need to generate capital.

So far, so bad. But the devil is in the detail. What Russia’s spate of national belt-tightening also means is that, somewhat counter-intuitively, the country’s hard currency reserves actually rose by $29 million between April 2015 and February this year. The reason is simple. In the words of Oleg Kouzmin, an economist at Renaissance Capital cited in the Bloomberg report, “The central bank is ready to tolerate almost any volatility… in order not to spend reserves.” The Kremlin believes that gold and hard currency reserves are the keys to its political independence, and it doesn’t wish to spend a kopek more than necessary on rescue missions of questionable efficacy. 

Amidst all this turmoil, Russia and North Korea have been getting on conspicuously well. Russia is not going to sponsor North Korea’s grossly inefficient economy (again) any time soon — Moscow wants to marshal its hard currency reserves, not spend them on The Marshal. Nevertheless, the two have enough political interests in common that one almost wonders whether Vladimir Putin might eventually pop up in Pyongyang to usurp Xi Jinping completely. In his latest essay as Sino-NK’s Russia and Eurasia Analyst, Anthony Rinna sketches out the changing face of Russia-North Korea relations as we speed forth through 2016. — Christopher Green, Co-editor.

North Korea-Russia Defense Relations: Drivers and Developments

by Anthony Rinna

After a new boost to North Korea-Russia relations through 2014, the two ushered in what they declared would be a “Year of Friendship” in 2015. Ties between North Korea and Russia had previously been business-oriented in nature, at least since the 1990s, but more recent agreements have raised concerns within the UN human rights community. Moreover, relations between North Korea and Russia in the defense and military sphere also reached a new level in 2015.

The new strategic relationship between North Korea and Russia raised the possibility of cooperation on aerial defense, intelligence, and North Korea’s nuclear arsenal (with nothing substantive or specific stated publicly as yet). Such tight-knit defense cooperation between North Korea and Russia is likely a long way off in practice, however. Furthermore, one must avoid the analytical trap of inflating the extent of North Korea-Russia military cooperation. As Kookmin University’s Professor Andrei Lankov reminds us in a prior piece for Sino-NK, despite the perceived working relationship between North Korea and the USSR, relations between the DPRK and the Soviet Union were occasionally hostile; strategists in the Kremlin did not consider North Korea to be a reliable ally. There is nothing to indicate that things have changed a great deal since then, and security cooperation between North Korea and Russia will likely see many setbacks now and in the future, just as it did in the past.

While the deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West certainly has a role to play in Moscow’s so-called “pivot to the East,” current geopolitical considerations in Russia’s European vector are just one of the factors that drive it to cultivate new partnerships in Asia. According to Eric Talmadge, Russia’s efforts to place greater emphasis on the Asian vector of its foreign policy represents both a Russian strategic distancing from Europe and an effort by Russia to secure its position in East Asia diplomatically, economically and in terms of its own security. At the same time, rapprochement between the DPRK and Russia entails a chance for the two sides to confront the US with, among other things, enhanced cooperation in the military-technical sphere. Nevertheless, to state that North Korea and Russia are joining forces explicitly to form an anti-American or anti-Western partnership offers only a partial analytical frame through which to discern the drivers of Russian military engagements with North Korea. Such a perspective, in fact, only serves to underscore the tendency in great power policy circles to view global developments – such as enhanced ties between Moscow and Pyongyang – through a lens with the self at the center.

The Korean peninsula has a duality of purpose for Russia, according to an analysis published by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). On the one hand, it constitutes the “soft underbelly” of Russia’s Far East, largely because of the tense security situation combining North Korea’s nuclear capabilities with the convergence of several regional powers, including China, Japan South Korea and the US. Security on the Korean Peninsula is of paramount importance for Russia’s own security. In addition to the implementation of a nuclear non-proliferation regime on the peninsula, Russia wishes to enjoy the economic benefits that a peaceful Korean peninsula offers (access to South Korean markets being the most obvious).

Thus Russia seeks regional partners with which it can cooperate to a great extent on regional security – mostly in the sense of confidence building rather than formal alliances. The Russian military would be hard pressed to attempt to create the same sorts of working-level relationships with the Japanese or South Korean militaries because of the ongoing territorial dispute with the former, and the latter’s strong defense ties with the United States. Therefore, aside from China, the most obvious and convenient partner with whom to secure Russia’s East Asian soft underbelly is North Korea. Even if Russia is not overtly thumbing its nose at the United States by cultivating defense relations with Pyongyang, it is unlikely that the US will ignore the development, and will likely take issue with closer North Korea-Russia military links. US defense and intelligence officials have already expressed concern over reported Russian naval movements and intelligence gathering operations against the US in Northeast Asia.

Overview: North Korea-Russia Military Developments in 2015 | In February 2015 the chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov announced that Russia was planning to conduct joint military exercises with North Korea. In some ways this is not unique, as Russia had also announced a similar endeavor with Cuba and was negotiating similar drills with Brazil and Vietnam. A few months later, the Chairman of the Russian State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, declared that North Korea and Russia were discussing the possibility of inking an agreement on the “prevention of dangerous military activities.” Naryshkin stated that it was possible the two sides would sign an agreement by the end of the year. Choe Tae-bok, Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, welcomed what he considered to be Russian attempts to mitigate Western pressure on North Korea.

The implementation of a DPRK-Russia agreement aimed at averting dangerous military activities, however, is likewise not particular to the relationship between Moscow-Pyongyang. Russia has also signed such agreements on preventing dangerous military activities in the region with Canada, China and South Korea. Furthermore, the agreement does not appear to be so much an accord on military cooperation as it does a confidence-building measure. The agreement is aimed at proper notification and communication on military activities such as exercises and other maneuvers to increase transparency, prevent border violations, and mitigate force majeure situations.

Additionally, in August 2015 a North Korean military delegation led by General Choe Jang-shik attended the 2015 International Army Games in Moscow. One possible reason for the visit includes preparation for the North Korean military to participate next year, which would give the DPRK’s armed forces a chance to show off their capabilities, compare and contrast their capacities against other armies, and show off their military might for propaganda purposes. In November Nikolai Bogdanovsky, the deputy chief of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff arrived in Pyongyang on an official visit. The details of the visit were not made public.

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Russian First Vice Chief of the General Staff Col. Gen. Bogdanovsky meets Vice Chief of the KPA General Staff Col. Gen. O in Pyongyang on November 12, 2015. On the far left is Russian Defense Attaché Alexei Nikolaevich Bartusov. | Image: KCNA

Korea as the Key: Strategic Security Interests in Northeast Asia | In a joint paper published by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and Seoul National University (SNU), experts state that Northeast Asia is the most dynamically developing geopolitical space in the world, with a concurrent high potential for conflict. Both Russia and South Korea are, according to the publication, directly affected by geopolitical and security tensions in the region, especially involving China and the United States. It is in both Moscow and Seoul’s best interests to create a balanced multilateral security framework.

In order to help prevent conflict and preserve regional peace, according to the RIAC-SNU joint document, it is imperative that the region does not become enmeshed in Cold War-style security arrangements. The solution to such a quandary is the creation of a multi-party security institution in Northeast Asia, similar to the former Six-Party Talks but more concretely institutionalized, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A security arrangement of this nature would, according to Hong Wan-suk of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, assist Russia in realizing its own security interests in Northeast Asia.

Outside of their own bilateral ties, the North Korea-Russia security relationship inevitably finds itself caught up in the growing tensions between China and the United States. In 2010, the Obama Administration made clear its desire to contain China, while Russian strategy, insofar as Northeast Asia is concerned, is based on Moscow’s declared need to contain the United States. The declared US strategy of containing China will also involve North Korea and Russia, insofar as US strategic positioning against China will also have spillover security implications for the latter countries. 

Russia has long been wary of military activities in the vicinity of North Korea, specifically regular joint exercises between South Korea and the United States. In March 2013, shortly after the annual Key Resolve Exercises between the ROK and US armed forces, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned the conduct of the exercises in proximity to North Korea as a risk to the security of the region. He specifically warned that continued execution of such drills on the Korean peninsula could end up causing the situation to “slide out of control.” He then went on to call for a revival of the Six-Party Talks, a position for which Russia has been an advocate since the negotiations collapsed a decade ago.

The warning from Moscow followed not only the annual drills between South Korea and the US. Tensions had also increased between North Korea and the US over North Korean threats to launch missiles at US defense installations in East Asia as part of a declaration from Pyongyang that it was entering a state of war readiness. In response, Russia urged restraint on both sides.

In an effort to help defuse regional tensions and foster cooperation, a multilateral security conference took place in Seoul from October 27-29, 2015. The conference included the former members of the Six-Party Talks as well as delegations from Mongolia and other international organizations, including the UN.

Missile Defense and Nuclear Weapons: Defense Posture | Russia has a somewhat mixed position on the North Korean nuclear program. It is generally interested in achieving a denuclearized Korean peninsula, yet has also threatened to limit arms control cooperation with the United States over Korea. In fact, part of the reason why Russia has supported the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is because of fears that Japan and South Korea may subsequently seek to acquire their own nuclear capabilities.  According to Ivan Melnikov, vice speaker of the Russian State Duma, North Korea was “willing to halt their nuclear program if, in their words, the US ceased provocative actions near the border of the DPRK.”

Lieutenant General Yevgeny Buzhinsky of the Russian armed forces has asserted that, while North Korean access to Chinese and Russian military technology has been curtailed, the North Korean military has nevertheless managed to significantly close the gap between its own rocket forces and those of the United States. General Buzhinsky further commented that the US was building a three-part global missile defense system, with one part in Europe, one in the US proper, and one in the Asia-Pacific.

The issue of missile defense is one that has drawn attention from China, North Korea, Russia and the US. Washington had proposed deploying the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea in order to deter a missile attack from North Korea. North Korea’s offensive missile capabilities have been growing even as its conventional military forces decline. Citing a grave possibility of a DPRK missile attack, the US proposed deploying this anti-missile system in order to defend its ally South Korea. Yet similar to past objections to a US missile defense shield in Europe (ostensibly to protect against an Iranian missile attack), Russia has objected to the proposed deployment of the THAAD system as a potential threat to its own national security. China has echoed the objection that THAAD would not be solely for the purpose of securitizing US interests against Pyongyang’s missile capabilities. As such, both China and Russia have been pressuring Seoul not to accept this deployment.

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Presidium of the DPRK’s Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong Nam (second from left), meets Valentina Matviyenko, Chairperson of Russia’s Federation Council, during a visit to Moscow. | Image: KCNA.

Conclusion | Recent developments in North Korea-Russia defense relations are likely to raise eyebrows among policymakers in Washington, and potentially in Tokyo and Seoul as well. Russia’s decision to delay approving a UN resolution on the most recent North Korean nuclear and rocket tests has raised the possibility that Russia may be keen to show its diplomatic importance and prowess. Russia declared that it needed more time to review the details of the text, but that purely practical rationale won’t have convinced everybody.

For all that, building an outright anti-US bloc in Northeast Asia is not actually in Russia’s best interest. It would only increase Russia’s vulnerability in the region, though that may yet end up being a side-effect of Moscow’s military rapprochement with North Korea. Nevertheless, the main driver of Russian policy with North Korea is the desire for new partnerships by which to secure Russia’s Asiatic rear in a highly nuanced and tense environment.

In fact, at present, Russian military cooperation with North Korea does not have either the style or substance of the military engagements Russia’s arch-rival – the United States – has with regional powers such as Japan and South Korea. To be sure, DPRK-Russia defense ties may grow even deeper going forward. As Washington continues its standoff with Pyongyang and cools relations with Moscow, defense ties between North Korea and Russia could grow more profound, whilst drawing a stronger counter reaction from the United States. Understanding Russia’s motivations outside the analytical framework of explicit anti-Western political maneuvering remains critical to a greater understanding of regional security dynamics.