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Russia and North Korea Are Friends Again

It is no secret that in recent years forces in the West and in South Korea that have been pursuing a policy of isolating North Korea in hopes of accelerating its collapse with a unified “anti-North Korea front.” They have worked especially hard to draw Pyongyang’s closest neighbors—China and Russia—into it. Without them, their “isolationist” efforts would virtually come to naught. However, that was not to be. First, Beijing dramatically expanded bilateral cooperation with the DPRK in 2010, and this year there was a breakthrough in Russian-North Korean relations. These events have created a more favorable atmosphere for resuming negotiations to resolve the Korean Peninsula Nuclear Problem (KPNP). However, not all those participating in the process are in a rush to take advantage of the progress made.

A meeting was held in Beijing on September 21, 2011 between the deputy foreign ministers of the DPRK and the ROK to seek a compromise that would allow the six-party talks on the Korean Peninsula Nuclear Problem to resume. The ROK representatives stuck to their old unproductive positions, insisting that Pyongyang must fulfill a number of preconditions before the negotiations even begin. Not surprisingly, these contacts between DPRK and ROK diplomats have yielded virtually no results either.

That outcome is all the more regrettable because the international community rightly expected more from the current inter-Korean contacts in the new positive atmosphere surrounding the prospects for restarting the six-party talks that emerged after the Russian-North Korean Summit in August. That gives us cause to reassess the potential of the constructive decisions made at the summit.

In view of the unusual nature of these doings, Kim Jong Il’s visit to Russia and his blitz meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev in Ulan-Ude continues to spark a great deal of interest in political circles in many countries.

This was Kim’s first trip to our country since 2002. The fact that the preparations for the trip and the summit itself took place in the strictest secrecy and very little is known about the outcome makes the story all the more intriguing. In talking with journalists after the meeting, Medvedev said only that the participants addressed all of the important issues: the bilateral agenda; multilateral and regional security issues, including the Korean nuclear problem; and denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

The lack of detailed and unambiguous information creates fertile soil for analysts to generate a lot of speculation. The vast majority of Western and even liberal Russian journalists are strongly of the opinion that Russia’s leaders should not deal with the unresponsive and capricious leader of a despotic regime, and that any association with him can only harm Moscow’s international image. Comparing North Korea to Libya or Syria, some political analysts agree that whereas “flirting” with “tyrannical Arab States” was at least to some extent justified given the benefits derived from arms sales and developing oil fields, this dalliance with Pyongyang, which admittedly has nothing to offer, looks strange and illogical.

Such assessments may seem convincing from the standpoint of our immediate pragmatic interests. When compared with our other Asian partners, the actual extent of Russian-North Korean economic cooperation seems insignificant; the mutual trade volume has not exceeded $100 million per year. Pyongyang’s limited export capabilities and foreign exchange reserves, which lie outside international processes, give no reason to hope that the situation in those areas can improve significantly.

The DPRK is indeed an odd and complex country that even we do not always understand. Still, it is a close neighbor despite its peculiarities, and although the North Koreans have problems with many countries, they get along well with Russia and even like it. That attitude is characteristic of most of the elite and the vast majority of ordinary Koreans, who do not believe there are serious unresolved problems in our relations. In a world where Russia has a lot of detractors, that is worth a lot.

As far as geopolitics and North Korea’s importance to Russia in the long run are concerned, that country has a significant impact on the international climate in Northeast Asia for a variety of reasons, including the nuclear missile factor and the state of the inter-Korean dialogue and US-North Korean relations. For Russia, which is looking to play a more active political and economic role in the region, the difficult situation on the Korean Peninsula is an issue that directly affects our strategic interests and, most importantly, our national security. But in order to effectively protect our own interests and pursue an effective policy aimed at achieving détente on the peninsula, Russia needs to maintain a political dialogue and have trustworthy channels of communication with the two Koreas—both the Republic of Korea, and the DPRK. That seems to be what Moscow is currently striving for.

Incidentally, the myth of Kim Jong Il’s “unpredictability” or even “irrationality” is nothing more than a cliché of Western propaganda, and it either fails to understand or, more likely, does not want to understand the motives behind Pyongyang’s “outrageous” behavior. All of the North Korean leadership’s recent actions have a certain logic, one that can seem very harsh and unfamiliar to the liberal Western mindset but which is capable of explanation. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea’s nuclear program, deplorable as it is from the standpoint of the global nonproliferation regime, has been North Korea’s only guarantee that it will not reprise the fate of many countries, beginning with Yugoslavia and ending with Libya, that have fallen into the West’s strategic gun sights.

With the summit in Ulan-Ude, Moscow and Pyongyang apparently took an important step towards unblocking the the negotiation process for resolving the nuclear problem in Korea that was broken off in late 2008. We should note that Russia, which is seriously concerned about the possible negative consequences of the situation, has been actively pursuing diplomatic efforts designed to chart a path out of the impasse since the beginning of the year. Largely thanks to that work, North Korea in March announced its willingness to return to the six-party talks without preconditions. Now, according to the Kremlin’s public affairs office, Kim Jong-Il buttressed that decision following the August summit with his intent implementing “a moratorium on production of nuclear materials and testing” during multilateral negotiations. However, it is not yet clear whether he was making an unconditional promise that would be automatically fulfilled or whether the North Koreans would only be willing to make those concessions if the other partners reciprocate. Be that as it may, however, this development shows that Moscow’s mild but persistent diplomacy is more productive and prompts the DPRK to be more flexible than does the hard line pursued by the United States and South Korea.

I should emphasize that the recent Russian-North Korean summit was not an isolated event but the culmination of a steady process in recent months of gradually increasing the extent and level of bilateral cooperation. There were two high-ranking Russian delegations in Pyongyang while Kim was traveling through Russia. An impressive team of representatives from most of the economic ministries and agencies, as well as leading companies (Gazprom, Inter RAO Unified Energy System of Russia, Russian Railways, etc.), led by Regional Development Minister Vladimir Basargin, along with their Korean counterparts, successfully held the fifth meeting of the Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic and Scientific-Technical Cooperation between Russia and North Korea (August 22-26, 2011). Progress was made on many fronts, but perhaps most importantly on talks to settle North Korea’s debt to the USSR. There is a real prospect that this obstacle, which has hampered normal bilateral economic cooperation over the past 20 years, will soon be removed. The meeting of the intergovernmental commission was preceded by a Russian decision to provide 50,000 tons of wheat to North Korea as food aid. Simultaneously, a military delegation led by Vice Admiral Konstantin Sidenko, Commander of the Eastern Military District, discussed plans for developing military and naval cooperation between the two countries and possibly holding joint exercises on finding and rescuing ships in distress at sea and humanitarian exercises. An agreement was reached whereby Russian and Korean Navy ships would exchange friendly visits in the near future.

The new interest in North Korea shown during the last summit was definitely a result of the fleshing out of plans for constructing the Trans-Korea gas pipeline from the Russian border to supply substantial amounts of gas (at least 10 billion cubic meters annually) to South Korea. The idea is far from new; the three partners began discussing it at least as early as 2009. However, discussions about the deal stalled, primarily because of flareups between the Koreas and the subsequent exacerbation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Overcoming their qualms, Pyongyang and Seoul almost simultaneously came out in favor of participating in this promising project. ROK Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan, who visited Moscow in early August, said his government has officially consented to the project. Now, Dmitry Medvedev and Kim Jong Il seem to have officially given their approval to this “deal of the century.” So far only a political decision has been reached, of course, and practical implementation will require a tremendous amount of work in both bilateral and trilateral formats.

One thing is clear: the deal will go nowhere without proper cooperation between Seoul and Pyongyang, but only time will tell whether they are willing to work together. A point in favor of that happening is the clear understanding by all parties that successful implementation of the project will yield substantial dividends for each and will also help stabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula, something that everyone would like to see. For Moscow, among other things, it presents a unique opportunity to consolidate its presence on the Korean peninsula and take advantage of the emerging opportunities to facilitate inter-Korean reconciliation as a considerate neighbor.

Thus, the Russian-North Korean summit took place and, judging by everything I saw, it was very helpful. Among other things, it showed that Russia’s Korean Peninsula policy is dynamic, rich with ideas and, more importantly, has two distinct vectors, all of which gives it needed stability and a sense of perspective.

It is also important that Russia’s continued friendly, neighborly policy toward the DPRK was affirmed at the highest level. And while President Vladimir Putin perceived Kim Jong Il to be a “completely modern man” after his first meeting with the North Korean leader in July 2000, President Medvedev said: “I got quite a positive feeling from the meeting; it was frank, substantive and wide-ranging.”

It is significant that Russia this year has unambiguously taken practical steps to demonstrate that it does not endorse the policy of isolating the DPRK and that it opposes a broad interpretation and application of UN sanctions aimed at limiting the North’s military programs, primarily its nuclear missile program. It believes that the restrictions should not affect the civil sector of the country’s economy. For those reasons and in its own national interests, which are aimed at becoming integrated into the regional cooperation processes in East Asia, Moscow has moved decisively closer to its neighbor and traditional partner.


Alexander Vorontsov is head of the Korean and Mongolian Studies Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies. This article was written especially for New Eastern Outlook.