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, writes Valdai Club expert Hoo Chiew-Ping, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies and International Relations at the National University of Malaysia. 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.
The current drive to renew Russia-DPRK relations is part of an initiative President Putin has been pursuing since the 2000s, to reverse Russia’s loss of influence in North Korea at the dawn of the post-Cold War world order. This renewal has not been without its tests and obstacles; relations had begun to stagnate when Kim Jong-un came into power in December 2011, after the demise of Kim Jong-il. However, this stagnation was not caused by any sense of hostility towards Russia; it was the result of Kim’s own strategic focus on developing a nuclear weapons programme and refusing to engage any powers diplomatically.
Following the claimed “completion” of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme by November 2017, Kim Jong-un began his diplomatic offensives by flaunting Moon Jae-in’s peaceful engagement policy, and had his diplomatic coming out to the world, beginning with the surprising summit with Xi Jinping in March 2018, ahead of the inter-Korean summit. A small glitch in Russia’s formal invitation to North Korea for a summit: the invitation has been issued since May 2018, around the same time as the US-DPRK summit. 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.
As revealed in the post-summit press conference, Putin said there remains “a lot to be done in bilateral relations”. This signalled the Kremlin’s reservations over the current Pyongyang regime’s sincerity in reaching out to Russia. This is due to two main reasons.
Firstly, the failed attempt over the past decade at fostering a trilateral Russia-DPRK-ROK mechanism to yield stronger influence on the Korean Peninsula. Russia under Putin had offered significant financial incentives and economic inducements to North Korea, such as writing off Soviet-era North Korean debt, and the Rajin-Khasin rail link, that would allow for the shipping of Russian coal to South Korea via the Port of Rajin, a trans-Korean gas pipeline, trans-Eurasian rail access, and many more.
South Korea has always been enticed by the massive benefits of connecting to Europe through Russia, and the strategic importance of an alternative energy supply from Russia. North Korea will no doubt benefit from those initiatives, but many failed attempts at making the economic incentives work has signalled that Pyongyang values the survival of its own government over lucrative prospects for obtaining economic benefits. It is also in North Korea’s interest to cut off South Korea’s peninsular land access to the Eurasian continent. Thus, Russia’s efforts in enhancing connectivity to and from the Korean peninsula met with North Korean reluctance. This resulted, ultimately, in Putin’s current reservations regarding enhancing bilateral assistance to North Korea.
Secondly, the slowed momentum in inter-Korean reconciliation does not bode well for Russian interests. As the world’s number one gas exporter, Russia sees great potential in South Korea’s investment in the Trans-Korean gas pipeline and railway. South Korea has been an important trade and security partner for Russia since the post-Cold War order. Coinciding with Russia’s attempt at renewing relations with North Korea, Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy allowed Russia to remain a stakeholder on the Korean Peninsula. The successive South Korean presidents, no matter their political ideology would engage Russia on the North Korea issue and seek to establish closer economic links with Russia. Kim’s summits with major powers may outshine Moon’s; Moon had a summit with Putin as early as November 2017 to secure Russia’s active involvement in the peace process, and the Putin-Kim summit also had Putin’s close aide visit the Blue House and provide assurance. Kim’s avoidance of the Moon government’s invitation to commemorate the anniversary of the inter-Korean summit may signal an intent to side-line inter-Korean engagement, without realising the repercussion such a decision can have on the wider strategic complexity around the Korean Peninsula.
The Matryoshka of strategic interests cannot easily be opened in 900 words or less, but some context still warrants Russia’s continuing engagement with North Korea. Last year, Russia, China, and North Korea issued a joint communiqué reiterating the strong ties between the three nations and calling for a loosening of sanctions against the DPRK. Russia would not want China to be the sole dominant country with influence over North Korea, Thus, it provides assistance to North Korea whenever China enforces sanctions implementation, and jointly supports North Korea in international strategic situations within and outside the UNSC, include the Cheonan-sinking incident, UNSC resolutions, supporting aid to North Korea, and many more.
Just like with China, a stable North Korean regime yields greater importance than a nuclear-armed North Korea, and the United States’ security assurance is key to the eventual denuclearisation of North Korea. The inter-Korean military agreement has provided the catalyst for changing the status quo on the Korean peninsula, but to secure the US buy-in on permanently changing the military balance has proven to be almost impossible. Whether Putin can deliver Kim’s message to Trump without inciting much speculation and controversial debates over Russia’s intentions on the Korean Peninsula, would depend on Trump’s reception and his unpredictable reaction.