East Asia Compass

Russia and North Korea: Replaying Old Games

02 Mar, 2015    ·   4842

Prof Sandip Kumar Mishra looks at the motivations for the strengthening of bilateral relations

It has been announced that Kim Jong-un will be participating in the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, to be held in Russia in May 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have been facing isolation of differing degrees and wish to assert their determination in the face of such sequestration. The visit was finalised in November 2014 during the visit of the Secretary of the North Korean Workers’ Party Choe Ryong-hae to Russia, who is considered to be the number two in the North Korean power hierarchy. In May 2014, Choe also made similar visit to Beijing to arrange a summit meet between the leaders of China and North Korea but did not succeed. If Kim Jong-un’s visit to Moscow happens, it will be the first foreign visit of the North Korean leader after assuming power in December 2011.

It is still too early to say whether Jong-un’s visit will actually take place, as other regional countries such as South Korea would not be willing to participate in the celebrations alongside Kim Jong-un. However, if it happens, it would be indeed an important episode in East Asian affairs, presenting the leader of the reclusive State an opportunity or compulsion to meet or face the leaders of many countries. It would therefore be interesting to explore the intentions of both Russia and North Korea in making these overt gestures, which are also intrinsically linked with North Korea’s relations with China.

North Korea has sought to maintain equidistance from its two closest allies - the USSR and China - from the days of the Cold War. The North Korean leadership has successfully played China against the USSR and in the process, has been able to garner economic and military help from both. In the recent sequence of events, North Korea had its third nuclear test in February 2013 along with several other provocative steps and statements, which have deteriorated the security situation in the region. North Korean behaviour has given an excuse to the US and South Korea to strengthen their security posture and preparedness in the region, which is definitely not good for China. As a result, China has shown its open displeasure with North Korea and has minimised its exchanges and support for North Korea. China has gone along with the international community in imposing various sanctions on North Korea. The Chinese President Xi Jinping has had two summit meets with the South Korean President Park Guen-hye in the last two years, but has held no such meeting with Jong-un. China has also reportedly been suggesting Chinese-style reforms to North Korea but this has not moved the latter yet – in fact, North Korea, in response, sent a strong message to China by executing Jang Seoung-thaek, probably the closest North Korean leader to China.

In this growing environment of isolation, Kim Jong-un has been looking at other openings. In 2014, Jong-un sent Kim Yong-nam, Chairman of the Presidium of Supreme People’s Assembly to Mongolia in the garb of participating in the Winter Olympics. However, by accepting Russian offer to visit Moscow, Kim Jong-un has decided to reuse North Korea’s old tactics and which is that when China is unhappy, go to Russia and vice versa.

From the Russian point of view, their presence and role in East Asian affairs would only be possible via North Korea. In the 1990s, when the Boris Yeltsin administration had very cold relations with North Korea, Russia had no opportunity to be part of the politics of the region. Russia had no role in the Nuclear Accord of 1994, the establishment of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation (KEDO) and the Four-Party Talks of 1995-96. Putin realised the mistake, and North Korea was his fourth foreign visit after coming to power in 2000. In the last few years again, it seems that Russia has become a non-player in East Asia and has been much busier in its western neighbourhood. Putin probably wants to rectify this imbalance and send a strong message to the West by demonstrating his connections with North Korea.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong visited a hydroelectric power plant in Russia in October 2014, and in January 2015, Russia has announced its assistance to North Korea in repairing and improving is power grid in exchange for rare earth metals from North Korea. Russia also announced in early February a joint military drill with North Korea.

The developments between Russia and North Korea are more significant for China as Beijing may have to rethink its policy vis-à-vis North Korea. The re-thinking has already begun with Xi Jinping sending a personal message through one of the top CCP leaders to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on the occasion of the third death anniversary of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Many observers felt that China’s changing posture had to do with its disappointment with South Korea and the US but the change could also be attributed to Russia’s outreach programme, which must be dealt with.

In brief, it could be said that North Korea is well aware that its relationships with China and Russia are of mutual dependence. Moreover, they also compete with each other for closer proximity to North Korea, which gives North Korea some space for strategic manoeuvring. Thus, the recent episode of Russia’s invitation to Kim Jong-un and his acceptance could be a replay of the old game, which North Korea, China, and Russia have been playing with each other since the Cold War era.