The relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang underpinned the development of North Korea’s economic and political doctrine during the Cold War – but since the breakup of the Soviet Union, these diplomatic and economic ties have weakened. Nonetheless, Gerard Clare argues, they still deserve our consideration as engagement between the erstwhile patron and client may act as a vehicle for intra-regional diplomacy in the future. Moving forward, Clare points the readers to key areas where they will find indicators of meaningful change. And while the evolution of this relationship will be slow, there is no doubt that both sides are willing to settle in for the long haul – Yong Kwon, editor of Rice and Iron
Slow and Steady Wins the Race: pulse of the current DPRK-Russia relationship by Gerard Clare
Overshadowed by North Korea’s relationship with China and Russia’s ongoing tensions with the West, we would rarely consider DPRK-Russia ties to be at the top of either Moscow’s or Pyongyang’s list of foreign policy priorities. Nevertheless, the two countries do share a border and a noteworthy history, and as such it is important for us to take note of how this strategic relationship is developing. Back in 2012 I wrote an article (paywall) giving a very brief overview of DPRK-Russia relations with two key points; first, while relations between the two countries have fluctuated since 1991, the death of Kim Jong Il and the rise of Kim Jong Un could provide an opportunity to reinstate some forgotten aspects of their relationship; second, a long-term foreign policy outlook is likely to prevail in both countries, lending itself to quieter inter-state developments and understandings that are overlooked by the all-too-often sensationalist media coverage of North Korea.
Two years on, interactions between Moscow and Pyongyang are continuing to pick up pace.
While the rise of a new leader can bring forth expectations of dramatic changes, both domestically and in foreign relations, the leadership of Kim Jong Un has seen little change in the course of North Korean diplomacy. Much of his work has been focused on the domestic front. This is only to be expected; as a young leader without the depth of elite support that his father enjoyed, shoring up his own power structures and consolidating his ideas on the long-term direction of the country is far more important than courting neighbouring countries.
From Russia’s side, Vladimir Putin has had his own issues to face. He successfully discredited the fledgling protest movements in the west of the country in 2012, but thereafter has faced a number of diplomatic situations – most prominently, a long-term decline in relations with the USA and attempts to construct the Eurasian Union – culminating in the events that are currently unfolding across Ukraine. Essentially both leaders have had bigger problems to resolve than fostering relations between the two countries, especially when a round of limited sanctions imposed against North Korea by the UN in 2013 impeded robust engagement.
Despite all this, ties have been maintained with ongoing diplomatic contact through regional governors in Russia, and at key times with the Russian federal government. Most recently we’ve seen Kim Yong-Nam lead a delegation to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, even though North Korea did not actually have any athletes competing at the games. Kim met with a number of senior Russian officials, including President Putin, and the opening ceremony was even broadcast the same day on KCTV. In return we will see Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, Yuri Trutnev, travel to Pyongyang in the near future to continue discussions.
Much of the long-term prospects however will depend on whether both heads of state can build a solid personal relationship. We know that Putin foregoes online communications and mobile phones, preferring instead to size people up in person, and we also know that if human biology has taught us anything, Kim Jong Un will have inherited at least some of his father’s traits, making it likely he too will remain insular, forging stronger relationships with those whom he respects and feels he can make agreements with.
It is unlikely we will see any meeting of the two in 2014, with events in Ukraine and forthcoming meetings with China in May dominating Putin’s immediate schedule, but depending on how the geopolitical winds blow, there is always a chance of it happening in 2015. In particular Moscow’s now-predictable trick of using relations with North Korea as a tool to develop relations with South Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan, could make a meeting a possibility. After all, Putin was the first Soviet/Russian leader to visit Pyongyang, he may find a few days in his schedule to repeat that feat as a symbol of moving attention further east in response to Western sanctions and rhetoric against events in Ukraine.
Reaching for one billion – Economic Statecraft
On the economic front little has changed in overall trade between the two countries for a number of years. In 2008 trade from Russia to North Korea totalled roughly $97 million, with exports from North Korea to Russia reaching almost $14 million. Since then there have been only small changes in these figures – data from 2013 shows that respective figures have shifted only marginally to around $103.5 million and almost $9.5 million. Whilst there is trade to be had in maintaining Soviet-designed infrastructure and machinery, there are currently only a few big money-making investment opportunities. Outside of energy and transport, cross-border investments are limited to projects such as small-scale production of KAMAZ trucks. In short, trade would appear to have reached its natural limit, consisting mostly of metals, chemicals, hydrocarbons, grains, textiles, machinery, railroad equipment, tools and electronics. (In addition, more than $1 million of each yearly total is even accounted for by Russian maintenance of the preserved bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il)
Despite these sluggish trade figures, meetings between the two countries in March of this year have seen the Russians outline a highly ambitious target of $1 billion in trade between the two countries by 2020, an almost unbelievable figure given current trends. It may well be that Russia hopes long-term energy and rail plans will lead to high returns in other joint mineral and industrial ventures. However, more realistically, I would estimate that the rise in trade levels is more likely to come via transit fees, rental fees, tolls and perhaps an increased use of North Korean labour on infrastructure and construction projects for the Russian Far East. In addition, it’s difficult to see what materials North Korea could export that Russia doesn’t already possess, especially given how Russia has almost every natural resource imaginable within its territory.
On the issue of energy and rail connections from Russia to South Korea via the DPRK, limited progress has been made. The railway has been upgraded as far as the Rason port, with trials underway on the completed line, but no progress has been made on moving it further South, nor has any further progress been made on extending a gas pipeline or electrical transmission system through the North to the South.
Nonetheless, in recent meetings, Russia expressed an interest in becoming involved in the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the south of the country, one which is dominated by South Korean companies at the moment. Given that this is hardly a lucrative endeavour for the South, I would assume that this is more about politics and influence than it is about money. Getting involved in the project naturally gives Russia a greater presence on the peninsula – in particular, Moscow gains influence with Seoul as Russian involvement may slightly reduce the risk of arbitrary closure of the complex by North Korean authorities. At the same time, it would also give greater incentive for the railroad to be completed all the way down to the Kaesong complex, achieving one of Russia’s long-term regional goals.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the meeting was the clearance of North Korea’s debt to Russia (with $1 billion of the $11 billion debt to be reinvested by North Korea into development projects), and the changeover to paying for energy supplies in rubles rather than dollars. The debt is an important step forward, but it will likely come at a political cost for Russia; debt was one of the few leverages Russia had over North Korea, one that could be used at times to gain access to non-monetary objectives. By fully clearing the debt they may well have gained access to certain projects, but it’s a card Moscow will not be able recover for a while.
One development between the two countries that really stands out comes from Russian census figures. Though year-on-year increases started in 2000, growing number of DPRK citizens are officially arriving in Russia in recent years. The figures jump from 59 in 2010, to 1,948 in 2011, and to 4,168 in 2012. By contrast, 15 left in 2010, 152 left in 2011, and 1603 left in 2012. Given the lower numbers for earlier years, these numbers do not include any North Koreans working in the timber industry (which continues to wane due to the elimination of the debt it was paying back, and the lack of profitability for both sides) and do not reflect the number of defectors or refugees either. Although the ‘Memorial’ organisation, a human-rights and humanitarian NGO based in Russia, successfully lobbied to stop Russian authorities from simply handing defectors back to the North, very few ever choose Russia as an escape route in the first place. At most a few over the space of a year will try to claim asylum, and when they do there is a rapid process of flying them to the South Korean embassy in Moscow and allowing them to transit on from there to other countries.
So if we rule out refugees and workers, what are we left with? There is no definitive answer, but I would imagine it is in students and training/knowledge exchanges for academics and those working in advanced industries. However without a definitive answer this is merely a guess on my part. It will be interesting to see if these numbers rise with the large plans in place to develop the infrastructure of the Russian Far East; not only is North Korean labour relatively cheap to come by, and almost guaranteed not to migrate for the long term, but it could prove an acceptable alternative for local citizens who are not too happy about the rise of migrant labour from Central Asia.
With all these issues in mind, the final question centers on what Russia hopes to get out of its relations with North Korea? Has it changed at all over the past few years? The answer to that is rather simple – Moscow wants what it has always wanted from the Peninsula: leverage, status, some pocket money, and a means to influence some of its dependence on relations with China, Japan and South Korea. With a deepening reliance on relations with East Asian economic giants dominating Russia’s attempts to break into the Asia-Pacific arena, North Korea offers a route to greater influence, albeit the prospect of influencing North Korea itself on anything is extremely limited. At the same time, the days of using North Korea to derive greater influence from South Korea, while not quite over, have also waned, with the new generation in both South Korea and the rest of the world growing to accept a two-state peninsula, a nuclear-armed North, and the occasional skirmish that drops a few munitions in the sea. A divided peninsula would appear to be on the horizon for the foreseeable future, and Moscow is probably moving forward under that assumption.
Relations between the DPRK and Russia will move slowly, as they usually do, focused on limited goals and opportune moments. We’ll have to wait a while longer to see if the long-game turns out to be a success for both sides, or if once again a ‘jam tomorrow’ disappointment will unfold as it often does with North Korea.
About the author:
Gerard Clare is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow, exploring and analyzing the contemporary development of the Russian Far East. His professional interests also extend to DPRK-Russia relations and the history of Russia’s territory in the Far East. You can follow him on Twitter @stakhanovite