Russia and DPRK: Awaiting a Post-Sanctions World

Even though no formal declarations were adopted at the end of the meeting, and no agreements were announced, the fact is that discussing them makes little sense while the sanctions are still there. However, it can be argued that apart from the denuclearization issue, economic cooperation was also on the agenda. It is worth noting that there were no formal statements on making the Korean Peninsula fully nuke-free, even though this may seem like an obvious topic. Perhaps there is not complete agreement on this issue either.

Expectations were high for Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Kim Jong-un, although there were no indications that Russia and the DPRK were ready to make public any new breakthroughs.

While the meeting did not result in any formal agreements, it all went quite well, it seems. The fact that the two leaders spent three hours instead of the one allotted for their formal talks suggests that, at the very least, they understand each other and have things to discuss.

The meeting was scheduled well in advance, but perhaps still seems long overdue since Kim has already met with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Moon Jae-in several times, and also received Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and numerous Russian delegations that visited the DPRK, all before the top-level meeting with Putin. This could be explained by the fact that Russia, in its commitment to maintaining stable and sometimes even friendly relations with Pyongyang, had to play a role that was less straightforward compared to that of the United States, China or South Korea, who always had specific matters to discuss with North Korea and, most importantly, could benefit directly from settling the North Korea problem and further expanding cooperation. This meeting provided a good occasion for Russia to remind the world ahead of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing that Russia is a major Asian power, and that it is time for Russia to be more proactive in finding its place in the world that will emerge with the easing of sanctions. Considering Putin’s character and ambitions, the Russian leader could not reduce his encounter with Kim Jong-un to a formal conversation, and had to do something that would set this meeting apart from all the rest. As strange as this may sound, it was Trump who helped make this happen by making a failure of his February 2019 meeting with Kim in Hanoi. Against this backdrop, the calm and smooth dialogue between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un creates quite a positive image. There were no formal promises, but only hints that a lot of things remain out of frame. The conversation focused on the question of East Asia’s future in a post-sanctions world.

Minor considerations aside, two reasons can explain why Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi failed to produce any results. The first reason is Trump’s attempt to dramatically shift the settlement paradigm – which meant moving away from a model of “gradual denuclearization in exchange for the gradual easing of the sanctions,” a vision that Pyongyang has become used to – towards the idea of “all at once.” Moreover, the US was not willing to provide any clear guarantees. It would be hard to imagine a worse model for the DPRK, since it would signal the complete failure of the savvy policy crafted by the North Korean leader over a period of more than three years. In order to elevate his country’s status, he literally took the world to the brink of nuclear war, only to back down at the last minute. There is a second reason, however. Trump was too explicit in his suggestions that the US could become Pyongyang’s main partner in bringing about an economic revival. Trump went as far as to use Vietnam’s success as an example, implying that the DPRK could follow the same path. This proposition seemed quite awkward since the last thing Kim wanted was to give up political independence from the US in exchange for economic prosperity. Blunt and tough, everything in this suggestion was at odds with how things are done in Asia.

Russia-North Korea Summit in Vladivostok: Opening the Nesting Doll of Strategic Interests
What was awkward about the acceptance of Russia’s invitation by North Korea, is that it followed on the heels of a no-deal outcome of the second US-DPRK summit in Hanoi. Thus, it is understandable that Russia would exercise caution over North Korea’s approach in placing Russia as its neighbour, in consideration of strategic manoeuvring around the peninsula.
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© Sputnik/Valery Melnikov

It is obvious that efforts to fully resolve the North Korean problem have not succeeded so far. However, the failed Trump-Kim summit revived the quite effective idea of a double freeze. Suggested by Russia and China, it consists of halting all nuclear tests and development in exchange for a gradual easing of sanctions. All this has to be done in stages, beginning with inter-Korean dialogue, followed by talks with the US and drawing in other interested parties afterwards. Kim has delivered on his part of the deal. Without giving up his entire arsenal, he did halt all tests without getting anything in exchange. The US sanctions, as well as those imposed by the UN, remain in place. It also became obvious that the time had come for Kim to take the negotiations to the next level and strengthen his hand. It was at this point that he stepped up talks with China and arranged a meeting with Putin, each time racking up more and more points. Although the sanctions are still in place and normal economic relations are impossible, Kim is clearly discussing the economics of the post-sanctions world with China and Russia. In January 2019, Kim visited a Tong Ren Tang pharmaceutical plant in China, while in Russia President Putin and Chairman Kim were accompanied at the dinner not by military brass but economic movers, including Primorye Governor Oleg Kozhemyako and Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East and the Arctic Alexander Kozlov.

Even though no formal declarations were adopted at the end of the meeting, and no agreements were announced, the fact is that discussing them makes little sense while the sanctions are still there. However, it can be argued that apart from the denuclearization issue, economic cooperation was also on the agenda. It is worth noting that there were no formal statements on making the Korean Peninsula fully nuke-free, even though this may seem like an obvious topic. Perhaps there is not complete agreement on this issue either.

Judging by footage shown on television, Kim was tense and probably nervous, despite the fact that following the talks Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said that Kim “created an impression as a rather seasoned, educated and well-balanced leader,” which means that Kim was a worthy interlocutor for the Russian leader.

Over the past twelve months Kim Jong-un has gone from antihero to respectable, if eccentric, leader. The total absence of any information on the North Korean leader’s mindset leads to intense speculation on anything related to him during his visits, from how he and his guards look, to whether he actually tasted the bread and salt offered to him during the greeting ceremony at Khasan station. In any case, Kim Jong-un’s image is a marvelous example of how he has evolved from the enfant terrible of global politics into a quite reasonable and even relatable interlocutor, a person to talk to, rather than fight.

Symbolic Meaning of Putin-Kim Summit
The Putin-Kim summit has a symbolic meaning. It has restored Russia’s position in the resolution of the Korean issue and outlined a scenario which could serve as an alternative to a return to tensions. Now, a scenario where negotiations resume has become more realistic, even in a multilateral format.
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© Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky

Against this backdrop, what matters the most for the DPRK is the system of guarantees. It can be argued that these guarantees should not be limited to non-interference, by military or political means, in the country’s sovereign affairs, but also include guarantees of far-reaching economic cooperation. A broad network of complimentary agreements is needed for granting such guarantees rather than promises by individual leaders. In addition, countries tend to shift their priorities with every new administration. In both the US and South Korean political systems, the leaders of these countries step down at a certain point (Moon Jae-in can theoretically stay in power until 2022, and for Trump it will all depend on whether he gets a second term in office), so it cannot be ruled out that the people who come after them will revert to treating the DPRK like a country you can’t negotiate with, a pariah or even an enemy. At the same time, China and Russia have maintained stable relations with the DPRK for decades with only minor fluctuations. This means it is high time to discuss guarantees.

The purpose for launching this “nuclear campaign” for the North Korean leader was not to scare the entire world or get some publicity (in which he succeeded, incidentally), but rather to inaugurate a series of economic reforms on the back of the interest and respect won by the DPRK. These reforms were designed to rely on “assistance” from other countries without losing control over the process or allowing interference in the country’s domestic affairs. This excludes the possibility of reforms China-style, since that would not have required a nuclear campaign. After all, China was ready to carry out an overhaul of the DPRK economy, albeit on its own terms.

However, Kim wanted both guarantees and independence at the same time. He is unlikely to make any concessions until he gets clear guarantees that would not depend on who is in the White House. This could take the form of a multilateral agreement on the Korean problem or China and Russia covering North Korea with their missile-defense umbrella, or promoting the DPRK’s integration in the international division of labor and trade.

The question is not only how the current situation can be resolved, even though the steps that were outlined are quite realistic and it all depends now on the sides, but how the future of the Korean Peninsula will look taking into consideration the interests of all parties.

If is obvious that the two Koreas will not reunite within the next decade. While North and South formally declare that reunification is their objective, hardly anyone would welcome the emergence in the region of a major country with a population of 85 million, South Korea’s advanced technology and cheap labor from the DPRK together with its nuclear capability.

Putin-Kim Summit: In a Warm and Friendly Atmosphere
The latest result of the visit was another demonstration of the North Korean leader’s contractual capacity and his desire to pursue an active foreign policy, not limited to the American, Chinese or inter-Korean direction. Here Kim again demonstrated his charisma, and this author hopes that the next DPRK-Russia summit will be held earlier than after eight years.
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© Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky

The lifting of sanctions, even if only partial, would lead to a new race to become North Korea’s leading partner in building a new economy, as well as exports and imports, and its guide in global politics.

Russia has its own interests. It is obvious that Russia will never be ahead of China in its relations with Pyongyang, even if major regional projects to deliver Russian oil and gas to South Korea and China through North Korea, building pipelines or including the DPRK in the Far East energy arch materialize. China has gone far beyond merely establishing close ties with North Korea. For decades it has been persistent in its policy to draw the DPRK economy into its sphere of influence. Today, China accounts for between 94 to 96 percent of DPRK’s foreign trade, making it hard to compete with Beijing, especially since no plans for economic cooperation can be discussed before the lifting of sanctions. It is obvious that Russia would prioritize regional cooperation, primarily between the Primorye Territory and the DPRK. But it was important that the two leaders discussed these plans at their meeting, showing that their countries are really thinking beyond sanctions.

For example, after the Putin-Kim meeting, Primorye Territory Governor Oleg Kozhemyako said that Russia will prepare a feasibility study for a bridge over Tumannaya River (Tumangang) into the DPRK. The countries do not rule out working together in North Korea’s special economic zone near the port of Rajin, where a Russian-gauge railway leads.

In theory, Russia has things it can offer to the DPRK in a post-sanctions world which is not limited to stepping up economic cooperation, since Russia will always trail China in terms of trade with North Korea. However, Moscow could rely on the EAEU to offer a broader political and economic union. This framework could be used to set up multilateral free trade areas, since a number of Asian countries are already moving in this direction. The EAEU has already signed an FTA with Vietnam, and entered into a provisional agreement with Iran paving the way to an FTA. Similar instruments are expected to be signed with Singapore and Serbia in the near future, and talks are underway with Israel, Egypt and India. Drawing the DPRK into the system of international trade relations with the support of Russia and China could be an effective way to promote regional stability.

But would Russia benefit from the DPRK fully giving up its nuclear weapons? On the one hand, it is always important to have a stable neighbor that will not “play” with nuclear tests or threaten its neighbors. But North Korea never threated Russia or China, instead always targeting the US and sometimes its allies. By supporting international sanctions, Russia formally affirmed its commitment to international agreements, but has not received anything in exchange, or lost anything. Russia-DPRK trade declined from an already meager $40 million, with current deliveries limited to humanitarian aid to the DPRK, while all future projects have been suspended. At the same time, the US and China have been scoring points for the second year in a row as they held top-level meetings with Kim Jong-un. Russia and the DPRK are neighbors, but it is only now that Vladimir Putin met with his North Korean counterpart. The DPRK’s decision to get rid of all nuclear weapons could theoretically be accompanied by the US removing its THAD systems from South Korea, which cover parts of Russia and China. However, there seems to have been no discussion of this matter so far. It can be argued that Trump would not oppose this, but only in exchange for complete denuclearization. At the same time, a group of US Congress members have drafted a bill limiting Trumps authority to withdraw troops from South Korea. According to this legislation, the US must have more than 22,000 troops there.

Another thing has also become clear: South Korea cannot be regarded as an independent force in this setting, dashing hopes for direct talks between the two countries and the signing of a peace treaty, mutual recognition (remember that there is no such country as the DPRK for South Korea) and gradual reunification. Other countries will decide the fate of the Korean Peninsula. As it turns out, Moon Jae-in’s role was limited to provisional functions as part of the “inter-Korean” dialogue.

Summit Diplomacy Amid ‘Double Freezing’
On April 26, 2019, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion following the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok. The participants discussed Russia’s potential for resolving the situation on the Korean Peninsula, bilateral cooperation, as well as the internal and external strategy of the North Korean leadership.
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© Sputnik/Alexei Nikolskii

There is also a downside to this process that has to be highlighted. We see that nuclear blackmail is the only tool for launching talks and succeeding for a country with a weak economy that is not part of any international organizations and remains outside the key global political and economic processes, and is also prone to breaking its commitments. We have to acknowledge that North Korea has elevated its political standing far beyond what it enjoyed under preceding leaders. In the process, however, even countries that used to be tolerant and understanding toward the North Korean regime, primarily Russia and China, had to support UN sanctions against Pyongyang. The key question was whether Kim Jong-un was open to talks or whether he was ready to unleash a war. It turned out that negotiations were possible, and that he can even be a pleasant interlocutor, surrounded by his lovely wife and wise sister. It is obvious that what he is after is not a nuclear disaster but rather shifting the starting position in his favor.

All this sets a bad example for other countries and intergovernmental groups who see that blackmail works if you are prepared to stand firm, refuse partial concessions and ask for everything “here and now.” On one end of the scale stands the “unwise” Qaddafi who gave up his nuclear program in exchange for joining the club of decent countries, while Kim looks smart on the other end. Qaddafi is no more, while leaders of major powers are talking to Kim. It is hard to imagine what can happen if leaders who are less amendable to talks begin rattling their nuclear weapons. The very practice of using nuclear weapons to achieve non-military objectives must by resolutely condemned.

Russia stands with China on most aspects of the North Korean problem, which does not mean that Russia cannot offer its own creative solutions and frameworks for direct interaction.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.