The North Korean ferry, the ManGyongBong, docked in the port of the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia, May 18, 2017. Reuters/Yuri Maltsev
The North Korean ferry, the ManGyongBong, docked in the port of the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia, May 18, 2017. Reuters/Yuri Maltsev

Much has been made of late about Moscow having an impact in Pyongyang with regard to curbing North Korea’s nuclear weapon and long-range missile programs.

However, talk of Moscow being central to solving the North Korea conundrum is more wishful thinking than political reality.

Moscow’s goals on the Korean Peninsular are primarily driven by a need to make Russia great again, to borrow from Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.

In 2014, Russia wrote off almost US$10 billion in Soviet era debt held by North Korea, but this has been misconstrued as Moscow gaining financial leverage over Pyongyang.

In truth, Russia was merely being practical in writing off the paper as it was never going to be repaid anyway.

What Moscow sees in North Korea is a gateway to lucrative energy markets in both South Korea and Japan to sell its natural gas and oil from fields in Far East Russia.

That suits North Korea as it looks at Russia and sees a source of hard currency.

Russia, meantime, is likely worried about China’s efforts regarding its One Belt, One Road overland and sea links from Asia to Europe.

Neither of those routes transit Russia and deprive Moscow of needed economic opportunities. Even before the China initiative, Russia had long wanted to develop a transportation network of its own in Far East Asia for moving its energy to markets.

The issue has always been getting Russian energy products to buyers and there is great appetite for gas and oil in both South Korea and Japan — in North Korea, too, for that matter, but Pyongyang lacks the cash.

That’s why Russia covets access to a year-round warm water port like Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast as well as a rail line down North Korea’s eastern seaboard to connect its Primorsky Krai province with the North as well as the South.

Pyongyang would likely welcome the development of such infrastructure — if Moscow were to pay for it — since the North would then be able to charge a transit fee for every unit of product that passes through its territory.

Further, with the new administration willing to engage economically with the North, odds are Seoul would fund the necessary steps to complete the link into South Korea.

In a related development, Pyongyang recently announced the start of a ferry service from North Korea’s Rajin port to Russia’s Vladivostok, barely 100 miles across an open sea.

Ostensibly, the route is intended to facilitate economic tourism between the two countries. However, few North Koreans have the money for such adventures and fewer still would be allowed to spend currency outside their country.

The objective is gaining Russian cash, but that brings up the question of just why would Russian tourists living in Primorsky Krai be eager to visit North Korea?

While Chinese tour groups are also targeted by the ferry service, more likely it will be used to transport North Korean laborers or smuggled goods to and from Russia, both a major source of hard cash for Pyongyang.

Regardless of the true mission of the ferry run, the wages of those exported laborers are about the only money that Pyongyang will ever get out of Moscow.

Even so, Russia will continue to insist that it be included in all security discussions regarding the Korean Peninsula. It just needs to be clear that Russia wants national prestige and energy sales out of any agreement, while North Korea will just take the cash.

Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force North Korea specialist. He can be contacted via his website