North Korea-Russia Relations: A Strained Friendship

International Crisis Group
Asia Briefing N°71
4 December 2007

North Korea’s relations with Russia have been marked by unrealistic expectations and frequent disappointments but common interests have prevented a rupture. The neighbours’ history as dissatisfied allies goes back to the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) with Soviet support and the Red Army’s installation of Kim Il-sung as leader. However, the Soviets were soon written out of the North’s official ideology. The Sino-Soviet split established a pattern of Kim playing Russian and Chinese leaders off against each other to extract concessions, including the nuclear equipment and technology at the heart of the current crisis. Since Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang in 2000, diplomatic initiatives have come undone and grandiose economic projects have faltered. Russia is arguably the least effective participant in the six-party nuclear talks.

The relationship between Putin’s Russia and Kim Jong-il’s North Korea has disappointed both sides. Putin has mostly been unable to assert himself as a prominent player in North East Asia, and North Korea has received neither the unalloyed political support nor the economic backing it seeks. Russia has more influence in the region than it did in the 1990s but not enough to change the equation on the Korean peninsula. Opportunities for economic cooperation have been limited, mostly by Pyongyang’s refusal to open its economy but also by Russia’s fixation on overly ambitious schemes that at best may take decades to realise. China’s more nimble investors have moved in much faster than Russia’s state-owned behemoths.

Moscow has been conservative in its political dealings with Pyongyang, playing a minor but thus far positive role at the six-party talks consistent with its concerns about proliferation and the risks of DPRK collapse. It regards the denuclearisation of the peninsula as in its interests, has relatively few commercial opportunities in the North and considers its relations with the other nations in the exercise more important in every way than its ties to Pyongyang.

While Russia has shown interest in building energy and transport links through the North, little progress has been made. Rebuilding railways on the peninsula will cost enormous sums, and overcoming the many obstacles will require years of negotiation. Investments have been hindered by the North’s unreliability and history of default on loans. Russia may eventually have to forgive billions of dollars of debt the North cannot repay. Energy is a major mutual interest but pipelines across the North are unlikely to be built soon; Japan and China are expected to be the main markets for Russian energy, while South Korea is reluctant to become dependent on the North for its supply. 

Pyongyang wants Russia to balance China’s growing influence but appears to recognise that Moscow will never provide the level of support it once did. The North has been keen to discuss economic cooperation but has lacked the political will to reform its economy sufficiently for foreign investment, even from a country as inured to corruption and government interference as Russia. It is equally interested in technical and scientific aid. Russian technology, equipment, and “know-how” have featured prominently in the history of both Koreas, and Pyongyang still seeks to resolve its economic problems by scientific and technical solutions. But there is unlikely to be much growth in bilateral cooperation unless the nuclear crisis is resolved peacefully, and the North opens its economy. 

This briefing completes Crisis Group’s series on the relationships between North Korea and those of its neighbours – China, South Korea, Japan and Russia – involved in the six-party nuclear talks. It examines Russia’s aims and ambitions in the region, as well as the responses from North Korea and is based on both interviews in Russia, Central Asia and South Korea and analysis of Russian and North Korean statements.


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