When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived at the Russian far eastern city of Vladivostok on April 25, he was bound to find a more sympathetic ear from President Vladimir Putin than he could ever expect from US President Donald Trump.
North Korea’s relationship with Russia is as old as the Pyongyang regime itself, and Kim’s visit for talks with Putin was more than just a snub to Trump after an unpropitious meeting between the two leaders in Hanoi in February.
At that time, Trump demanded a complete denuclearization of North Korea before any sanctions could be lifted, while Kim wanted the US to end all such punitive measures before his country would begin to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal.
In principle, Russia is also in favor of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, as outlined in a foreign-policy concept document signed by Putin in November 2016. Moreover, Russia has direct, justifiable reasons to be wary of North Korea’s ballistic-missile tests.
Many of those are carried out from the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground, also known as Musudan-ri, which is located dangerously close to North Korea’s border with Russia. History shows the tests are not always successful, threatening Russian territory.
In July 2006, two medium-range missiles launched from that facility veered off course and landed in Russian territorial waters off the port city of Nakhodka near Vladivostok. The mistake infuriated local Russians and angry citizens tried to make their way into the North Korean consulate in Nakhodka to protest. Mikhail Kaminin, a Russian Foreign Ministry official, branded the test launch “an act of provocation.”
Still, Russia does not view North Korea’s WMD program in the same fretful way as the US. To Washington, it is a nuclear threat to regional security and stability, as well as the US mainland in sight of Pyongyang’s steadily improving ballistic-missile capabilities.
Alexander Gabuev at the Carnegie Moscow Center explains Russia’s point of view in an April 24 article: “In Moscow’s thinking, Kim Jong Un has learned from the fates of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi that for an authoritarian regime the only safeguard against USA military intervention is the possession of nuclear weapons capable of hitting the American mainland.”
Therefore, Gabuev explains, “nuclear weapons are the last thing Pyongyang will give up, since they are the only guarantee of the Kim regime’s survival.”
Putin declared during the recent meeting in Vladivostok that North Korea needs internationally recognized security guarantees before any denuclearization may take place. That obviously would have to include more countries than the US.
North Korea must be fully aware of how the administration of US President Donald Trump withdrew unilaterally from the Iran nuclear deal, thus adding for North Korea one more example of America’s willingness to break off negotiated deals with what it considers rogue regimes.
This has led to a softer Russian approach to the issue, which in turn has prompted Washington to view Moscow as a spoiler to US plans to apply maximum pressure to get Pyongyang to agree to a solution on America’s exclusively determined terms.
Russian entities in the Far East have also been accused of helping North Korea circumvent United Nations sanctions by importing North Korean coal and re-exporting it to countries such as South Korea and Japan marked as Russian coal.
More legitimately, Russian companies are keen to implement a number of projects in North Korea, among them the construction of a gas pipeline to South Korea that would run through the North, a proper railway link between the two countries and a shared electricity supply system.
But, as Gabuev argues, “Moscow finds itself in a Catch 22 situation: the sanctions need to be dropped for the projects to become more realistic and to offer North Korea an incentive to change its behavior, but because there is no immediate stimulus for Pyongyang to change course, UN sanctions could stay in place indefinitely, thereby killing Russia’s hopes of implementing these trilateral projects.”
By meeting with Kim, Putin may have shown that Moscow is an honest broker that wants to find a solution to the Korean WMD crisis on more realistic terms than Washington’s hardline approach, which at this point appears doomed to fail despite Kim’s recent suggestion of a third Trump summit.
That is a view Russia shares with China, but Putin also knows that Moscow’s leverage is limited and cannot be compared with Beijing’s outsized influence.
China remains North Korea’s main foreign trade partner and the only country that Kim so far has shown any willingness to heed. Kim’s first meeting with Trump, in Singapore in June 2018, came after close consultations with China and personal meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Russia’s comparative role, as Gabuev argues, will be to “continue its increasingly active support of Beijing by playing second fiddle to China in North Korea.”
Still, the importance of Russian-North Korean relations should not be underestimated. The North Korean state is, after all, a creation of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In the winter of 1940, Kim Jung Un’s grandfather and leader Kim Il Sung retreated with a group of followers into Russia after having fought together with Chinese communists in then Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
Despite the official North Korean version of history, there is no record of Kim Il Sung being active in Korea apart from attacking a police station at Pochonbo just across the Manchurian border.
While in Russia, the Koreans were settled in the village of Vyatskoye north of Khabarovsk, where Kim Il Sung’s son and Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il was born in 1942.
When this Asia Times correspondent visited Vyatskoye in 2003, villagers still remembered the Koreans and even pointed out the old log cabin where the Kim family stayed until the end of World War II, as well as the earthen airstrip from which Kim Il Sung was flown down to Vladivostok after the Soviet Red Army had occupied the northern half of the Korean Peninsula in August 1945.
From Vladivostok, Kim Il Sung continued by ship to the North Korean port of Wonsan. In September 1949, the Soviet-occupied North became the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with Kim Il Sung at its first premier.
The official North Korean version, of course, has it that Kim Il Sung liberated Korea and that Kim Jong Il was born in a guerrilla camp on the slopes of Paektu Mountain in the Korean Peninsula’s north, where his first toys were allegedly guns and bandoliers.
Such fantasy has been ridiculed by Russian writers, and Yu Song Chul, an ethnic Korean, once wrote in an open letter to Kim Jong Il: “I’m ashamed … I still can recall how you walked around Vyatskoye with your [father’s] captain’s cap on your head. It was there you walked your first steps … how come you don’t remember that?”
North Korea’s powerful – and dreaded – internal intelligence agency was established by ethnic Koreans from the Soviet Union and modeled after Stalinist prototypes. Once in power – and despite the Marxist indoctrination in the Soviet-run camp at Vyatskoye – Kim Il Sung took over the secret police force and set about creating a dynasty more akin to a clan-oriented Confucian autocracy than a socialist republic.
That may be a main reason North Korea’s communist system has not collapsed, unlike those in Russia and Eastern Europe, or transformed itself into capitalist autocracies like those in China, Vietnam and Laos.
But despite all that – and anger at North Korean attempts at rewriting history by omitting the Soviet Red Army’s role in driving the Japanese out of the peninsula’s north – now capitalist Russia has nevertheless inherited the ex-Soviet Union’s close relations with Pyongyang.
Trade between Russia and North Korea is not nearly as brisk as between North Korea and China, which annually is worth billions of dollars. But it is not unimportant for local businesses in Russia’s far eastern region.
There is also the question of an official figure of 8,000 North Korean workers employed by businesses across Russia. Although that marks a significant drop on the 40,000 or so who were working in Russia until UN sanctions prohibited the employment of North Koreans two years ago, it remains an issue, especially in the Far East.
Around 85% of the North Koreans work in construction and are paid 40% less than the average salary in Russia. Several Russian construction companies in the region cannot manage without cheap labor from North Korea, a fact that the government in Moscow cannot readily ignore.
It is clear that Russian officials would like to find ways to ease UN sanctions against North Korea, but it is unlikely that the recent Putin-Kim summit will have made much progress on that score as long as America’s position remains unchanged.
Trump promised to ease tensions and neutralize what he perceives as a North Korean threat to the region, but the outcome has so far been the opposite: a polarization of forces, where the US has to face not only China but also Russia.
Putin may be playing second fiddle in the bigger strategic contest, but he has managed to strengthen Kim’s resolve to withstand any pressure to give in to what he said in Vladivostok he considers unreasonable American demands.