Russia’s borders: North Korea is moving up Moscow’s agenda

North Korean Workers’ Party Secretary Choe Ryong-hae in Moscow in November. EPA

This latest instalment in our series on Russia’s relations with its neighbours looks to North Korea. Robert Winstanley-Chesters tells the story of Russian’s chequered relationship with the communist stronghold and explains that it could be entering a new mutually beneficial period.

Russia is supposedly turning its back on Europe … and is looking for new business partners, above all in Asia. Let me say that this is absolutely not the case.

Our active policy in the Asia-Pacific region began not just yesterday and not in response to sanctions, but is a policy that we have been following for a good many years now.

– Vladimir Putin, Sochi, October 2014

When Russia’s leader made those comments last year in a characteristically robust retort to Western liberal values, it was a useful reminder of his nation’s longstanding interest in the East.

Moscow may not quite have been on the Pacific Rim as long as the Japanese, Chinese or Korean nations, but it achieved its goal of year-round ice-free access to the ocean as long ago as 1858-60 with the Treaty of Aigun and the wider “unequal” treaties of Peking.

This enabled Moscow’s writ to extend to the Pacific region of Primorsky Krai and its administrative centre, Vladivostok; as well as to the Tumen River, which divides latterday Russia, China and North Korea. This is the reason that Russia has a border with North Korea today.

Serban Bogdan

Then as now, this went hand in hand with Russia’s other regional priorities: the mineral and natural resources on Sakhalin island and the markets and spaces of the (then) rapidly developing economies of north-east Asia. We shall see that the Russians may well be reasserting and reassessing the importance of their eastern interests and connections in 2015. But in a sense Moscow has been doing so since the 19th century.

The extent and location of the Soviet Union’s tutelage for instance of Kim Il-sung, first and “Great Leader” of North Korea is open to intense, fractious dispute. But if the Soviets were too diplomatic to comment loudly on this themselves, the importance of their technicians, educators and engineers to North Korea’s developmental history is clear to those who have examined the evidence.

In truth, the Soviet relationship with North Korea following the Korean War (1950-1953) was never easy, for a combination of reasons. These included Russia’s post-1956 policy of dismantling the legacy of Stalin, the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, and North Korea’s engagement with the group of states who refused to align themselves to either the Soviets or Americans during the Cold War.

Yet Moscow kept investing in North Korea through these years to prevent it from becoming too close to China and to retain a buffer from American forces in South Korea and Japan. Moscow’s support throughout these years was vital to many of North Korea’s largest environmental and infrastructural projects, and Soviet hydrologists and industrial engineers supported the nascent institutions of Pyongyang after 1945. Even at the nadir of their relations from the mid-1950s onwards, there is no evidence that technicians working on reservoir and irrigation projects were recalled westwards.

The post-Soviet era

Relations between Moscow and Pyongyang did collapse following the fragmentation of the Soviet Union. With Boris Yeltsin credited with having extraordinarily diminished Moscow’s influence in the wider world, this included a lack of focus on east Asia. This meant that Russia appeared temporarily irrelevant in the search for solutions to the problems of the Korean peninsula.

Russia under Yeltsin also manifested an almost flagrant disregard for the region’s provincial and peripheral infrastructure, which can be seen in acute disparities in the region today. In Pyongyang’s institutional mind, this made linking up with Moscow even more unattractive.

Relations with Pyongyang revived in 1999 after Putin’s rise to power. When he and then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met in 2000, it coincided with a rapprochment between the North Korean leader and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Dae-jung. Russia returned to the geopolitical game on the North Korean issue, expanding the five-party talks to six parties.

Russian development priorities in the region also revived at this time. Putin’s paper of November 2000, Russia: New Eastern Perspectives conceived of Pacific east Asia as a “common house” in developmental terms. It envisaged that through an “iron silk-road”, east China, both Koreas and potentially Japan could access European markets through a connection between the trans-Siberian railway and an inter-Korean railway.

It also talked about Russia supplying South Korea with gas from its Sakhalin fields through a newly built and Russian-controlled pipeline system running the short route along the east coast of North Korea rather than via Japan or China.

Russia and North Korea also sought to cooperate on environmental matters affecting the Tumen basin, both through regional cooperation bodies and shared projects focused on tiger and other wildlife conservation.

Admittedly ambitions and possibilities in the early 2000s have not come to fruition, thanks to the peculiarities of the Bush regime in the US, Kim Jong-il’s fervent nuclear ambitions, the mistrust of Lee Myung-bak’s government in Seoul and countless other difficulties.

Other recent obstacles include declining relations between Pyongyang and Beijing, the Abe government’s desire to resurrect a muscular Japan, and the political and legacy difficulties with current South Korean president Park Geun-hye. Her father Park Chung-hee, the former president, was anathema to the north during his time in office, while her mother was murdered by a supporter of the regime.

The global picture

The deterioration in Russian relations with the West is likely to add new difficulties. Cooperation over North Korea is likely to become more difficult. It will be even harder to gain Russian assent for any complaints to the Security Council on grounds of human rights or anything else.

In spite of all this, Moscow is willing again to expend diplomatic and political capital on its relations with Pyongyang. We saw high-level diplomacy last year in Moscow led by North Korean Workers’ Party Secretary Choe Ryong-hae, and current leader Kim Jong-un is due to visit in person imminently. We have also seen large capital expenditure by Russian Federal Railways and other institutions in Rason in the north-eastern corner of North Korea and on cross-border railway connections at Khasan on the Russian side.

High-level Russian and North Korean diplomats meeting in Moscow last November. EPA

So in spite of the passage of time, current events and ideas driving Russo-North Korean relations today are similar to those of the past. In a situation where US and Europe are consumed by fear, fury, lust and indecision over Russia’s western frontier, it is important to watch what happens in the East.

It could well be an opportunity for Russia, North Korea and perhaps other Eastern partners to resolve some longstanding possibilities and finally build that “common house”.

To read previous instalments from our Russia’s borders series, click here.