North Korea and Russian Relations
By Taylor Hill
As a founding member of the United Nations and member of the UN security council, the USSR was expected to abide by UN resolutions in order to further the common interest. However, during the 1950 Soviet boycott of the UN (initiated to protest the exclusion of the People’s Republic of China), the Security Council adopted Resolution 84.1 This resolution would lead to the UN military intervention in the Korean War, placing the Soviet Union at odds with many fellow United Nations members through its support of the North Korean regime. Consequently, Soviet aid to North Korea was kept as low-profile as possible, consisting mainly of weapons, vehicles and aircraft. The exceptions to this rule were the Soviet pilots secretly sent to fly under North Korean and Chinese colors, who were not officially recognized as having participated in the conflict until the 1990s.2
While this early allegiance would suggest that relationships between the Soviet Union and North Korea might have remained strong by virtue of regional ties and shared ideology, this was not to be the case. Perhaps due to the PRC’s more direct involvement in the Korean War, North Korea took the Chinese side in the Sino-Soviet split. Although the Soviet Union continued to provide aid to North Korea until its dissolution, the relationship between the PRC and the DPRK became far more politically influential and likely enabled the continued survival of North Korea as a sovereign state.
The breakup of the Soviet Union led to the democratization, at least in theory, of the Soviet Republics and satellite states. While this in many cases resulted in a period of turmoil and rule by business oligarchs, it still paved the way for eventual progress toward free elections. Due to North Korea’s alignment with China, however, it was less affected by the Soviet Union’s breakup than many other countries in the Communist Bloc. With the continued Communist Party rule of China, North Korea retained a powerful economic ally with a common political system. In contrast, the newly-established Russian Federation turned to South Korea for greater trade opportunities, weakening its relationship with the North Korean government.
Compared with the wealth of South Korea, the North had little to offer to Russia after their ideological ties were severed.3 Be that as it may, the proximity of the two countries required continuing diplomatic relations, and trade connections were eventually restored. Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular saw value in renewing Russia’s relationship with North Korea, viewing the country as an opportunity to limit Western influence in East Asia.3 With the strong United States military presence in both Japan and South Korea, North Korea provided a buffer to the perceived threat of American interference. Improved relationships with North Korea also had the benefit of securing Russia’s position as a significant player in the Korean peace process.
From the North Korean perspective, Russia is a potential ally that shares its rivalry with the United States. The nuclear deterrent that North Korea has struggled to provide for itself becomes less of an urgent matter with Russian support, as it is unlikely that the United States will willingly enter a conflict in opposition to Russia. This is not to say that the North Korean government is fully aligned with Russian wishes: Russia too has supported UN sanctions against North Korea. However, while supporting these sanctions, Russia, as well as China, has been a voice in favor of moderation. In 2018, Moscow and Beijing joined North Korea in suggesting an easing of sanctions during the North Korean denuclearization process, presenting the economic benefits as a continuous incentive to North Korean denuclearization.4 It is apparent that both Russia and China see the value of continued ties to North Korea even while realizing that supporting its nuclear ambitions could harm their own interests.
In terms of economy, Russia is the second-largest origin for imports to North Korea.5 In 2017, China imported goods to a value of over 43 times that of Russian imports. In 2018, Chinese imports to North Korea increased to over 71 times greater than those from Russia.6 This means that although trade with Russia is still significant, North Korea is far from dependent on Russian trade. In economic relationships as well as political, China again takes the lead as North Korea’s most influential ally.
Reinforcing China’s status as North Korea’s most important neighbor is the fact that Putin had not personally met with Kim Jong Un until April 2019.6 Indeed, Russian interest in North Korea over the past decade seems significantly lower than would be expected given the countries’ shared history, especially when viewed in light of Western interest in North Korea. Although Russia does see potential in cooperation with North Korea, it appears to have other, higher priorities. This is understandable given the limited value of Russian trade with North Korea and the political difficulties which result from appearing too close to Pyongyang.
As an established world power, Russia is not dependent on involvement in the Korean peace process to increase its political relevance. The whole matter can be understood quite simply in terms of cost and benefit. A closer relationship with North Korea would hurt Russia’s already-strained relationships with Western powers while providing very limited benefits to Russia. Furthermore, it is improbable that Russia will be able to exceed or even match China’s influence on North Korea, meaning that even if the potential benefits of stronger ties to North Korea were to increase, the prime beneficiary would most likely be China. The current situation provides Russia with the buffer it needs between Western influence and its own East Asian interests, while still not interfering with Russian interests in other parts of the globe.7
Russia is not likely to seek any major changes in its relationship with North Korea as long as the status quo remains beneficial. The Russia-North Korea summit in April 2019 lasted only a few hours, and reports from the Russian media suggest that little of substance was discussed or accomplished.8 Although the usual subject of denuclearization was broached, Russia refused to commit to any new aid for North Korea and North Korea did not make any new commitments to work towards denuclearization. It seems Putin is content to be a friendly neighbor to Kim Jong Un rather than a strong ally.
While economic aid and cooperation on projects of mutual interest will continue, China long ago replaced Russia as the foreign power with the most influence on North Korea. This makes the instability of current relations between the United States and China even more concerning, as further escalation of tensions with Beijing could drive it to support Pyongyang on international issues. If sanctions, denuclearization talks, or other initiatives with regard to North Korea are to be successful, the full support of China will be necessary.
- United Nations Security Council, Fifth year, “Complaint of Aggression upon the Republic of Korea,” S/1588, July 7, 1950, http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/84.
- Roblin, Sebastien, “Russia vs. America: How U.S. Jets and Soviet MiGs Secretly Battled During the Korean War,” The National Interest, November 2, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/russia-vs-america-how-us-jets-and-soviet-migs-secretly-battled-during-korean-war-34992.
- Kim Tong-Hyung, “Russian-North Korean Relations since the Korean War,” Associated Press, April 24, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/24932ed50a424a12a243cc1434c71b49.
- Lee Jeong-Ho, “China, Russia, North Korea call for adjusted sanctions ahead of denuclearisation,” South China Morning Post, October 10, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2167931/china-russia-north-korea-call-adjusted-sanctions-ahead.
- Simoes, Alexander, “North Korea,” The Observatory of Economic Complexity, 2018, https://oec.world/en/profile/country/prk/.
- Snyder, Scott, “Where Does the Russia-North Korea Relationship Stand?” Council on Foreign Relations, April 29, 2019, https://www.cfr.org/article/where-does-russia-north-korea-relationship-stand.
- Osborn, Andrew, “Russia throws North Korea Lifeline to Stymie Regime Change,” Reuters, October 4, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-missiles-russia-analysis/russia-throws-north-korea-lifeline-to-stymie-regime-change-idUSKBN1C91X2.
- Lukin, Artyom, “The Putin and Kim Rendezvous in Vladivostok: A Drive-By Summit,” 38 North, May 2, 2019.
- Lukin, Artyom. 2019. “The Putin and Kim Rendezvous in Vladivostok: A Drive-By Summit,” 38 North, May 2. https://www.38north.org/2019/05/alukin050219/