Russia attempts to regain clout over North Korea

Unlike the West, Russia does not want the Kim Jong-un regime to collapse – or change at all.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Russia''s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met last week for talks [File: AP]

Russia’s frenetic attempts to hop on the bandwagon of historic diplomatic talks between the United States and North Korea underline two simple facts: Pyongyang no longer depends on Russia for its economic and political survival, and Russia does not want the North’s regime to change.

North Korea emerged from the quagmire of the Korean War 65 years ago as red Moscow’s loyal, obedient vassal that diligently copied the Stalinist system – and preserved most of its frightening features such as a pervasive personality cult of the Kim dynasty, labour camps, and mass purges.

Its inefficiently planned economy relied heavily on Soviet food and fuel supplies, and the Communist giant’s 1991 collapse contributed to a perennial famine that killed up to 3.5 million North Koreans. A year earlier, Moscow established ties with South Korea – ruining diplomatic ties with the North for a decade.

A political generation later, Kim Jong-un, a whimsical and inexperienced despot, understands one thing about his impoverished, militarised and nuclearised nation of 25 million.

“It is not Moscow’s puppet,” Konstantin Asmolov of the Center for Korean Studies of under the Russian Academy of Sciences told Al Jazeera.

Belated invitation

Last Thursday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put a wreath of flowers at the feet of the gigantic, 20 metre-tall bronze statues of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il, on the sacred Mansu Hill in Pyongyang. 

Then he bowed – an unnecessary gesture for a diplomat of his rank, that, nevertheless, earned him an unplanned audience with the third Kim, the Kommersant, a Russian daily, concluded.

Lavrov held talks with the “supreme leader” ahead of the Trump-Kim summit, the first-ever meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean helmsman that is scheduled to take place in Singapore on June 12.

Russia feels sidelined and Lavrov’s carefully phrased “diplomatese” hinted at Moscow’s dissatisfaction with the hasty development – and its desire to join in.

“We shouldn’t try to make sudden movements, shouldn’t speed up the process artificially that will, of course, require a considerable amount of time,” he said in televised remarks referring to the possible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

“Russia is ready to contribute to these efforts, our Korean friends welcome it, and we have discussed some steps that can be taken in this direction,” Lavrov said.

He also mentioned the possible revival of long-mothballed projects to build a natural gas pipeline, a railway, and a power transmission line from Russia to South Korea via the North’s territory.

But it will all become possible only if the United Nations and the West lift the sanctions imposed on North Korea for its nuclear programme, he said.

He also invited Kim to Russia for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the Soviet era, such visits were frequent and obligatory for Kim’s grandfather who once commanded a Soviet battalion during World War II, and was handpicked by Joseph Stalin to rule the nascent Korean Communist state. His son and heir was born near the eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk in 1941.

This time, North Korean media simply acknowledged the reception of the invitation.

Russia is ready to contribute to these efforts, our Korean friends welcome it

by Sergey Lavrov, Russian foreign minister

Reunification concerns

Russia has shared a 17-kilometre-long border with North Korea since 1860, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans who migrated to Tsarist Russia still live in the former Soviet Union. One of them, Viktor Tsoi, remains an immensely popular Russian rock star 28 years after his death in a car crash.

Moscow is not interested in a new Chernobyl in its scarcely populated yet resource-rich Pacific provinces in case the Korean conflict goes boom.

Unlike the West, Russia does not want the Kim regime to collapse – or change at all. If there is a civil war or yet another famine, an exodus of refugees and a mishandling of nuclear weapons spell disaster for Russia’s Far East.

A unification of North and South Koreas could also prove disastrous for Moscow’s policies in Asia.

After the reunification of Germany and the pro-Western transformation of the Communist bloc, NATO approached Russia’s borders. Something similar is likely on the Korean Peninsula – a unified Korea will inevitably become Washington’s ally, which means more US bases on the Russian border.

However, Russia does not have enough economic leverage to influence things in North Korea.

Tens of thousands of North Korean labour migrants work throughout Russia, while their government appropriates most of their wages. Their deportation – the Kremlin’s favourite way of solving political problems with ex-Soviet republics.

Russian support

Western observers noted after Lavrov’s visit that Russia can still play a role in the Kim-Trump talks, although not very crucial.

“As North Korea and the US continue their discussions ahead of the summit, it looks increasingly likely Moscow will not be able to have a direct effect on whether the Singapore meeting happens or not,” Christ Stevenson, international editor of The Independent, a British daily, wrote. 

“However, Mr Lavrov’s Pyongyang visit has reminded the US and their allies that any long-term deal will likely need Russian support – and has placed Moscow back in the thick of another international crisis,” he wrote.

One of Russia’s foremost experts on North Korea says that Moscow will act as guarantor of the agreements Trump and Kim will reach in Singapore.

“There is an agreement between Russia, China and North Korea that in case accords are reached [with the US], Russia and China will serve as guarantors of these accords,” Andrey Fyodorov, who once served as Russia’s ex-deputy foreign minister, told Al Jazeera.

“Kim is in a situation when he is not losing anything,” he said. “Another issue is that Kim is not making a deal with Trump without guarantees.”

And that’s where Russia will step in – with its veto power at the United Nations Security Council, an old itch to counter and contradict the US whenever and wherever it can, and a domestic propaganda machine that will extol anything the Kremlin does – even if a step is miniscule and irrelevant in comparison with the USSR’s former clout on the Korean Peninsula.

“Russia’s role is increasing and that is right,” Vladimir Terekhov, a Russian expert on the Asia-Pacific region, told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency in early June.

North Korea “is our neighbour that cares”, he added.

Source: Al Jazeera