Russia is a major international player and Northeast Asia is a vital region for its geopolitical fabric. In past decades, Russia and North Korea had a close relationship, but nowadays the situation has changed. Russia’s strategic interests are to ensure its economic strength and a measure of regional balance of power. In terms of its policy towards North Korea, Russia has been developing various diplomatic initiatives, even though it remains wary of the situation becoming overheated.
Russia has always had an economic presence in North Korea, with trade and other exchanges being much more significant in the past than they are now. Over the past few years, this has declined substantially, and bilateral trade between the two in 2019 amounted to only $29 million. Nevertheless, as North Korea slowly re-engages with the world, there is potential for trade to increase, particularly with Russia given the political and economic proximity.
Energy quite likely could be the main driver of this increase. Currently, Russia supplies oil to North Korea. But there are numerous developing energy projects that could expand this cooperation. One such project is the Russian-Korean Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation which includes mapping projects and further development of Great Man-Made River, one of the most extensive water-supply systems.
Politics and Diplomacy
Although ties between Russia and North Korea have weakened over time, diplomatic links between the them have still remained. This has been largely in the form of high-level visits and personal exchanges with North Korean leaders such as Kim Jong Un. Such visits are seen as important opportunities to demonstrate the presence of Russia in the region, as well as to express solidarity with the North Korean leadership.
Russia also maintains active dialogue with Washington and the other major powers on the subject of North Korea. Moscow has repeatedly proposed that diplomatic initiatives towards finding a resolution of the nuclear issue. As a response to UN economic sanctions on North Korea, Russia has proposed sending a Swedish or Chinese delegation to Pyongyang in order to gain first-hand insight there and to engage in diplomatic negotiations.
Russian attitude to the nuclear issue around the Korean peninsula is one of caution. Moscow has voiced support for denuclearization and has criticized Pyongyang’s provocative acts. But at the same time, Moscow’s caution towards potential US involvement in negotiations stems from its own inner insecurities based on its experience in West Asia.
Russia’s main strategy is to limit escalation and to create an environment in which North Korea is able to pursue its own security interests without engaging in open conflict. This requires, as far as Moscow is concerned, the presence of all the major powers in the region, as well as the avoidance of any US-led military actions. As a result, Moscow’s stance is to use diplomatic, rather than military, methods to solve the North Korea issue.
There has been an ongoing cultural exchange between Russia and North Korea. This includes cultural exchanges such as the Moscow-Pyongyang Concert and the Annual International Movies and Television Art Festival, as well as the recently opened Vladivostok-Pyongyang Ferry, which enables passengers to travel from Russia to North Korea.
The two countries also cooperate on an academic level, offering numerous study abroad opportunities for both North Korean and Russian students. For example, there are programs for Russian students attending North Korean universities and visa-free entry into Russia for North Korean students who join an educational program. This exchanges provides an opportunity for the deepening understanding between peoples of both countries and improving overall relationships.
Role in Negotiations
As one of the participants of the Six-Party Talks on the nuclear issue, Russia is paying close attention and actively involved in the entire process. Although Moscow is not a direct participant in the current US-North Korea negotiations, it has voiced its support for the denuclearization process and has also engaged in backroom diplomacy in order to influence the negotiations. As such, Moscow is likely to play an important role in the process in the future.
Russia has also been trying to ensure that the interests of the major powers are taken into consideration, particularly in terms of guaranteeing the security of North Korea. Moscow is pushing for all parties involved to negotiate, in order to reach a peaceful resolution and end the long-standing tensions between North Korea and the US.
At its core, Russia’s policy towards North Korea is mainly driven by strategic interests. Moscow wants to ensure its economic strength in the region and a measure of regional balance of power. Russia does not agree to deploy its military or support a regime change in North Korea, it simply strives to reduce the overall tensions in the region and to maintain a stable balance of power.
One way that Russia can do this is by playing an intermediary role between Pyongyang and Washington. This could give Moscow a role in mediating conflicts and easing tensions between the two sides. Russia has used this same strategy in past negotiations in other regions, and is likely to continue with such tactics in the North Korea conflict.
Escalation of Tensions
Russia is taking a very cautious approach towards the escalating tensions between North Korea and the US. Although Moscow has maintained a generally constructive attitude towards resolving the conflict, it is in no hurry to provoke the sides involved and push for a premature solution.
At the same time, Moscow is acutely aware of the dangers of an armed confrontation. As such, it is doing its best to support an initiative wherein the conflict is solved either peacefully or through dialogue. Ultimately, Moscow wants to ensure that there is no open military conflict and that the major powers can maintain a balance of power in the region.
Summary of Actions
Russia has a vested interest in the continuing stability in Northeast Asia. To this end, it is taking a very deliberate approach towards North Korea and its nuclear issue. This includes supporting diplomatic solutions and avoiding siding with one of the sides involved. Furthermore, Russia’s goal is to encourage economic cooperation and cultural exchange through its own projects with North Korea. It also seeks to maintain a degree of regional balance of power and ensure the economic strength of its allies in the region.