Being the most important supporter of North Korea in 2016-17, Russia still has its own aims and goals in bilateral policy, despite North Korea’s recent harmonising actions. Before this year, North Korea has survived for years with the support of China and Russia. While China hardened its attitude towards North Korea from around 2016, Russia kept supporting it strongly. But what are Russia’s aims and future prospects on its North Korea policy?
The relationship between North Korea and the USSR and later Russia was rather strained until President Vladimir Putin changed the policy. Previously, Russia had little influence on North Korea, but Putin saw a geopolitically strategic link with the development of the Russian Far East. In particular, the ‘Asia Pivot’ policy from around 2012 raised the importance of North Korea for Russia from the geopolitical and strategic points of view. Russia placed importance on North Korea for aims such as strengthening Russia’s presence, balancing China’s presence and preventing the influence of US expansion in the Asia-Pacific region.
China’s suspension of oil supply to North Korea in 2013 made the Russian position there stronger.
Since then, Russia has significantly expanded its energy supplies and military and economic cooperation with North Korea. China’s suspension of oil supply to North Korea in 2013 made the Russian position there stronger. In addition, Russia’s isolation after the Ukrainian crisis made North Korea more important for Russia. Moreover, Russia thought influence on North Korea could make its international presence stronger. Russia’s economic interests towards North Korea include access to mineral resources and enthusiastic participation in the Rason Special Economic Zone. In addition, a sea route project joining North Korea’s Rajin Port and Russia’s Hasan Port, with a 49 year contract for leasing one of the wharfs and the construction of railway and pipeline networks connecting Russia and the Korean peninsula are attractive for Russia. Russia also expects to strengthen its economic relations with South Korea by such projects. Russia welcomes North Korean workers, who have been indispensable in many construction projects and the development of the Far East. This is mutually beneficial, because North Korea can earn foreign currency and Russia can get low-paid, diligent workers.
Russia has opposed Western sanctions against North Korea and insisted on a peaceful solution through dialogue for a long time. It has subsequently argued that US policies, including military drills with missile tracking exercises by the US, Japan and Korea close to North Korea's coast and the deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missiles, will irritate North Korea and urge its military expansion.
Russia and China share the same objectives for the future prospects of North Korea. While they oppose its nuclear development, they hope to avoid the collapse of North Korea and the unification of the Korean Peninsula. They are afraid that in the case of such scenario being realised, refugees would rush to China and Russia, the US Army in Korea could move northward, and they would lose an important ‘buffer zone’ for competing against the US. The peaceful coexistence of North and South Korea is most desirable for them, and Russia seems to continue to support the North Korean regime.
While North Korea’s attitude is radically changing, the situation may change as a result of the discussed US-North Korea summit in case it will be realised. The US and China are promoting not the current six-party talks, but four-party talks by North and South Korea, China and the US. Russia is warning not to exclude it from the Korean peace process while evaluating the results of the Inter-Korean summit. However, Russia does not have a vital interest in North Korea, and seems to be maximising its interests by utilising the tension of the Korean peninsula issues. In addition, Russia is trying to maintain its ability to respond flexibly to future developments in North Korean issues.
Yoko Hirose is Professor at the Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University, Japan and was a Visiting Scholar at the Aleksanteri Institute 2017-2018.