Friends in Need: Choe Swoops in on DPRK-Russia Relations
On Monday, November 17, a senior North Korean official of impeccable revolutionary breeding and Kim family loyalty is scheduled to travel to Russia. Choe Ryong-hae, son of famed guerrilla fighter Choe Hyon, is once again to don the bokdu of “special envoy from Kim Jong-un” for an extended visit encompassing Moscow, Khabarovsk, and Vladivostok. According to a press release put out by the Russian side, Choe and his interlocutors are to discuss “bilateral relations, including ways to improve political dialogue and stimulate trade and economic cooperation; the situation in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia; as well as some international issues of mutual interest.”
The Russian statement is characteristically vague, but it is thought that North Korea is keen to forestall unity on its human rights record in the UN; the timing is pertinent, as the matter is tentatively scheduled for a vote on November 18. For its part, Russia is in the midst of rotating away from Europe and looking east towards Asia, far from the physical and political mess in Ukraine. Then there is the matter of economic gains. It remains to be seen whether President Vladimir Putin will entertain his visitor from the east, which would ramp up the symbolism of the visit considerably; however, South Korean media has been quick to note that Minister of the People’s Armed Forces Hyon Yong-chol met with President Putin as recently as November 8, making it all the more likely that Choe will do the same.
In the midst of all the intrigue stands Sino-NK analyst Anthony Rinna, armed with a primer on the last few months and years of bilateral ties. — Christopher Green, Co-editor.
Friends in Need: Choe Swoops in on DPRK-Russia Relations
by Anthony Rinna
As relations between Russia and the West sour over the Ukraine crisis, Russia is moving toward stronger ties with its Asian partners, and this includes North Korea (and China). Indeed, DPRK Foreign Minister Lee Su-yong recently described relations between North Korea and Russia as “forged in blood.” While post-Soviet North Korea-Russia relations were formally solidified in a friendship treaty in 2000, it is only now that the relationship is bearing any substantive fruit, symbolized by Russia’s forgiving of 90% of North Korea’s Soviet-era debt. North Korea’s own relationship with China has also faltered somewhat, prompting Pyongyang to seek new partners with renewed vigor. North Korea and Russia appear to have come upon an opportune geopolitical moment to recalibrate their interactions.
One indication of the seriousness with which North Korea is approaching Russia is the fact that senior Korean Workers’ Party Secretary Choe Ryong-hae is to visit Russia as a personal envoy from Kim Jong-un from November 17-24. It remains to be seen what the visit will accomplish, but there is clearly potential for each side to benefit from a renewed and strengthened bilateral relationship.
A Brief History: DPRK-Russia Relations from 1991 | After the fall of the USSR, the newly created Russian Federation largely turned away from its former ally North Korea in order to improve ties with the economically robust and wealthier South Korea, the better to attract hard currency investments in the Russian economy. Relations between North Korea and Russia subsequently stayed poor until the signing of a friendship and cooperation treaty in 2000, when Vladimir Putin paid a state visit to Pyongyang (Kim Jong-il reciprocated the following year). The treaty calls for cooperation in securitizing Northeast Asia, and for the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. What it does not do is stipulate Russian military intervention in the case of an attack on North Korea.
Regardless, the treaty has remained a hollow and insubstantive document, and even today Russia remains cautious about the erratic and largely unpredictable North. However, thanks in particular to Russian outreach and initiative, relations have been developing apace as of late. Keen to mitigate its own isolation, the North is only too willing to have Russia as an economic and political partner. Even North Korean citizens’ views of Russia appear to have changed markedly since the 1990s, when North Koreans were frequently made aware of the chaos that reigned in post-Soviet Russia.
Power of the Purse: Russian Investment in the DPRK | Some analysts assert that Russia is building its relations with North Korea as a direct result of the economic sanctions laid against Moscow by the European Union in light of the Ukraine crisis. However, Russia’s efforts at recalibrating its relationship with the DPRK are also a logical extension of its own professed intention to reorient toward Asia (the so-called “Putin’s Pivot”).
Admittedly, Fiona Hill and Bobo Lo see Putin’s move as more talk than substance. It is pointed out that the DPRK is no substitute for the EU, which is by far Russia’s biggest trading partner. Moreover, the vast majority of Russia’s economic prowess is in the western part of the country, while Russia’s Far Eastern region remains comparatively underdeveloped. Just as Hill and Lo state that Putin’s Pivot is “more likely rhetoric than an actual, substantial policy,” so Georgy Toloraya, an economist and Korea expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, asserts that it will be hard for Russia and the DPRK to entertain real, mutually beneficial economic exchanges.
Nevertheless, Russia’s recent economic courting of North Korea comes at an opportune time for the North, presenting a source of income and investment as well as a potential counterweight to China. At present, trade between Russia and the DPRK is only worth about $110 million, fifty times less than the trade volume between China and the DPRK, and fifteen times less than that between North and South Korea. This leaves a lot of room for growth. Since the early 2000s China has been by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner, and today three-fourths of the North’s external trade is conducted with the Chinese. North Korea has always sought not to limit itself to one partner, and is predictably unhappy with this state of affairs. Now, Russia is poised to take a more active commercial role in the North, which will bring much needed revenue, technical expertise, and above all an alternative.
Despite the unimpressive state of contemporary DPRK-Russia economic ties, North Korea has recently taken several steps to make bilateral economic links more viable, such as easing visa restrictions for Russian businesspersons operating in North Korea (the idea of creating a visa-free regime between North Korea and Russia was also recently discussed), allowing Russian businesspersons greater access to the Internet in order to carry out their work (although this will not extend to social media, which North Korea recently banned foreigners from using), and permitting financial transactions between the DPRK and the Russian Federation to be conducted in the Russian Ruble as opposed to the US Dollar. In June 2014, the sixth session of an intergovernmental forum on scientific, technical, and trade relations between North Korea and Russia was held in Vladivostok, capital of the Russian Far East. The Russian minister responsible for the development of the region and North Korea’s minister for foreign trade, Ri Ryong Nam, were both in attendance. Russian companies have been invited to work in developing the DPRK’s not inconsiderable mineral wealth.
The development of infrastructure (such as energy pipelines and railways) has long been a part of Russia’s economic activities abroad, a de facto element of government foreign policy. As this pertains to North Korea, Russia recently built a rail line from the Russian town of Khasan to the North Korean city of Rajin, home of the Rason Special Economic Zone (라선개발특구). While speaking about the project, Russian ambassador to the DPRK Alexander Timonin highlighted the two countries’ mutual struggle against Japanese imperialism during WWII, and cited their historic relationship as part of the basis for today’s economic ties. Russia also recently proposed a deal whereby Russia would overhaul North Korea’s national rail infrastructure in exchange for access to the aforementioned mineral wealth, and even has plans to build a rail line from Russia to North Korea and then into South Korea. Much like the proposed gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea by way of the North, this endeavor seems highly implausible given the political risks it would entail, but it symbolizes the direction of Russian geopolitical and economic thinking.
The Art of the Attainable: Political Relations | As with their bilateral economic relations, so North Korea and Russia have also found one another at a time of mutual political benefit. North Korea considers Russia to be something of an alternative to China as a partner, while according to the Associated Press, Russia’s renewed relationship with North Korea constitutes Russian “diplomatic thumb-nosing” at the West. Moreover, although Russia is not a major player in East Asia in and of itself, in the specific context of Northeast Asia it serves as a diplomatic outlet for both North and South Korea. Russia is one of the only major powers both in the world and in Northeast Asia that has comparatively healthy, normal relations with both the two Koreas.
In fact, in recent years Russia has taken a rather balanced approach in its relations with North and South Korea, not least because of the economic benefits of a healthy relationship with South Korea. Given these benefits, the onus is on Russia not to jeopardize its relationship with the South in light of the DPRK-Russia rapprochement. Russia’s eastern seaboard economic interests are much better served by developing ties with South Korea. Coming from the Russian side, the recent revival of relations with the DPRK is mostly based on political calculations rather than economic considerations, but the latter cannot be entirely ignored.
This is clear in Russia’s careful stance on North Korea’s nuclear program. After a recent meeting between the North Korean and Russian foreign ministers, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that the two countries hoped to revive the Six-Party Talks under the provisions of the goals and principles expounded in the joint statement issued in September, 2005. Furthermore, Lavrov also declared that while North Korea and Russia have differing views on the North’s nuclear program, Russia hopes both countries will take a cordial, non-antagonistic approach toward resolving pending issues.
Some analysts have even gone as far as to state that Asia may become divided into American and Russian spheres of influence. This of course supposes that Russia has the leverage and bearing to act as one of the major poles of a multipolar Asia, which it likely does not. Nevertheless, it is true that Russia has been working on developing ties with several other minor countries in the Asia-Pacific region such as Myanmar, seemingly in order to build its influence in the region. Professor Andrei Lankov thinks the recent DPRK-Russia rapprochement is part of the latter’s effort to create an anti-hegemonic front in world affairs. Maybe so, but whatever the Russian Federation’s motives and designs are for re-calibrating relations with the DPRK may be, the results seem capable of easing Pyongyang’s diplomatic and economic isolation.
Conclusion | Economically speaking, whatever benefits as may accrue from recent developments in the DPRK-Russia relationship will be limited by the fact that most of Russia’s economic strength is on the Western (i.e. European) front; as such there are not as many economic opportunities in Russia’s Far East in the first place. Nevertheless, North Korea is poised to garner some fruits from a recalibrated trade relationship with an old ally, one that is a major economic power (albeit also staring down the barrel of a recession of its own). In the midst of a long quest to diversify its economic partnerships and put distance between itself and China, North Korea has encountered an opportunity to build a sound trade relationship with Moscow, which can only benefit the degraded North Korean economy.
On the political front there is also potential, but again limitations. North Korea-Russia relations will likely be tempered by Russia’s awareness of the much greater benefits to be garnered by having good relations with South Korea. Nevertheless, the more relations between Russia and the West sour, the more Russia will seek political relations with other countries. North Korea represents an opportune outlet for the Russian presence in Northeast Asia. Likewise, North Korea’s revived relations with Russia will mitigate the North’s political isolation. In light of global developments, it seems that both Russia and North Korea have found a friend in need.
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