Russian and North Korean Relations
Written by Marren Haneberg
Russia has played the role of mediator between North and South Korea and has a “relatively equal relationship” with both countries (Economy). Other countries involved in North Korea, such as the United States, China, and Japan, align more closely with one country or the other. In its relations with both countries, Russia demonstrates that it does not want the US involved in these security issues, encouraging “inter-Korean diplomacy” to end the dispute. Russia demanded that South Korea reject the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system and urged North Korea to “refrain from provocative actions,” declaring North Korea’s nuclear system a “threat to security in North-east Asia” (Economy).
In 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un talked with US and South Korean leaders about the possibility of denuclearization. Russia has also become involved with North Korea denuclearization efforts, offering North Korea a nuclear power plant in exchange for the country dismantling its nuclear weapons program in fall 2018. Through this deal, Russia is pursuing “an energy stake in Korea” according to Victor Cha, a former White House staffer who was considered for US ambassadorship to South Korea in 2018. To reduce North Korea’s chance to “use the power plant to build nuclear weapons,” the Russian government would operate the plant and deal with all byproducts and waste (Hudson and Nakashima).
Nine Bridges Plan
On February 13, South Korea and Russia agreed on the Nine Bridges plan, which includes cooperation on “shipbuilding, natural gas, railways, electricity, agriculture, Arctic shipping routes and fisheries” (Yonhap). The agreement calls for Russia, South Korea, and North Korea to participate in joint research for economic cooperation “on railways, natural gas and electricity in the event of North Korean denuclearization” (Yonhap). This plan includes a gas pipeline that runs from Russia to South Korea “via the territory of North Korea” (Voloshchak). This agreement aims to minimize US involvement, which has recently increased, in the region by enforcing Russian economic dominance in the region and tying the Koreas together.
Illegal North Korean Labor
Many Russian small businesses hire North Korean workers. In December 2017, Russia signed a UN agreement to stop hiring North Korean workers. The Kremlin, however, has not enforced the agreement, sowing “confusion among regional authorities and employers on how to implement the sanctions and punish transgressions” (Kurmanaev and Grove).
Russia’s reluctance to enforce the very agreement it signed stems from economic concerns. North Korean labor is inexpensive and widely used in vital industries such as logging. About 50,000 North Koreans work in Russia, 40% of which are illegal and unregistered. Many of these workers are subjected to “conditions of forced labor,” and provide a cheap, albeit inhumane, labor source (“2017 Trafficking in Persons Report” 45-6).
Russia’s “lax oversight” implementing UN labor resolutions is a “policy decision” that allows North Korea to earn foreign currency, source vital supplies in Russia, and undermine US attempts to dispose of the country’s WMDs. In 2018, North Korea imported “$1 million worth of gas condensates from Russia last year, despite the UN ban on selling such products to Pyongyang” (Kurmanaev and Grove).
Undermining the UN
Russia’s disregard for UN agreements regarding North Korea is in a similar vein to its issues in Ukraine. By ignoring UN policies for North Korea, Russia shows that likewise, it “will not give in to western pressure to change his behavior in Ukraine” and that “North Korea’s resolve in the face of American and international pressure is admirable and worth supporting” (Thoburn). Western powers have enacted sanctions on both North Korea and Russia. Following a 2017 meeting with South Korea, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that sanctions would drive North Korea into a corner, escalating the conflict (Office of the President of Russia). Putin’s statement comes from Russia’s own frustration with UN sanctions related to the Ukraine conflict and demonstrates that the Kremlin will continue to ignore sanctions on North Korea.
In December 2018, Russia defied the UN by selling North Korea 7,000 tons of refined oil, the largest amount ever between the two since the UN started collecting data in 1962 (United Nations Statistics Division). This sale came a few months after US UN Ambassador Nikki Haley “accused Russia of ‘cheating’ UN sanctions on North Korea” through illegal fuel transfers at sea (Varandani).
Russia will continue to prop up the North Korean regime to support its own foreign policy decisions condemned by the West. Economic issues also play a role in this policy. Overall, Russia wants to maintain power in the Koreas by keeping its role as mediator and keeping out US involvement.
“2017 Trafficking in Persons Report.” U.S. Department of State. https://www.state.gov/ documents/organization/271344.pdf.
Economy, Elizabeth C. 2018. “Russia’s Role on North Korea: More Important than You Might Think.” June 7. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/blog/russias-role
Hudson, John and Ellen Nakashima. 2019. “Russia secretly offered North Korea a nuclear power plant, officials say.” January 29. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost
Kurmanaev, Anatoly and Thomas Grove. 2019. “‘These Are Our Friends’; Russians Push to Preserve North Korea Ties.” January 25. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles
Office of the President of Russia. 2017. “Заявления для прессы по итогам переговоров с Президентом Республики Корея Мун Чжэ Ином.” September 6. http://kremlin .ru/events/president/news/55541.
Thoburn, Hannah. 2017. “Why Russia Won’t Help More on North Korea.” September 12. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/russia-north-korea-putin
United Nations Statistics Division. “Commodity Trade Statistics Database.” Last updated February 1, 2019. http://data.un.org/DataMartInfo.aspx.
Valentin Voloshchak. 2019. “A Closer Look at South Korea’s Plan for Cooperation With Russia.” January 9. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2019/01/a-closer-look-at-south-koreas-plan-for-cooperation-with-russia/.
Varandani, Suman. 2019. “Russia Sold North Korea 7,000 Tons Of Refined Oil In December.” February 15. International Business Times. https://www.ibtimes.com/russia-sold-north-korea-7000-tons-refined-oil-december-2764176.
Yonhap. 2019. “Korea, Russia sign action plan to bolster bilateral cooperation.” February 13. Korea Herald. http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20190213000817.