Friends with Benefits: Russia and North Korea's Twisted Tango

Russia and North Korea are using each other...again.

Russia and North Korea make up the latest international odd couple. President Vladimir Putin has recently reached out to one of the poorest and least predictable states on earth. So far, the new Moscow-Pyongyang axis matters little. But Russia has demonstrated that it can make Washington pay for confronting Moscow over Ukraine. It may try to leverage its influence in North Korea to make things harder for the United States.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) exists only because of Russia’s predecessor state. The United States and the Soviet Union divided the Korean peninsula, which had been a Japanese colony, after Tokyo’s surrender in World War II. Moscow set up the DPRK in its zone of control.

In 1950, Joseph Stalin approved Kim Il-sung’s plan for a military offensive to conquer the southern half of the peninsula, where the Republic of Korea (ROK) had been established. As the leader of global communism, Stalin could hardly say no to Kim Il-sung. But he distanced the USSR from Pyongyang’s invasion in order to avoid conflict with America.

After the United States and its allies threatened to overrun North Korea, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) intervened massively. The PRC then eclipsed the USSR in Pyongyang’s halls of power; the Sino-North Korean relationship was said to be as close as lips and teeth.

In practice, however, the DPRK’s relations with both communist giants were tempestuous as Kim balanced the two while extirpating all domestic opposition. He disapproved of de-Stalinization and denounced Khrushchev; Kim was later angered by Chinese opposition to turning the North into a de-facto monarchy under the Kim family. North Korea denounced Moscow in 1991 after it recognized South Korea. The North reacted more calmly when Beijing did the same the following year only because Pyongyang had no other patrons to turn to.

Over the last two decades, Russo-North Korean relations have been minimal. The DPRK welshed on its debt and offered few economic opportunities. In contrast, Seoul provided Russia with investment and trade in abundance. Moscow even transferred weapons to the ROK to help pay off Russia’s debts to the South.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met with “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il in 2011, but little came of this meeting. Two years later, President Vladimir Putin held a summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, by when it appeared that Russia was beginning to lean towards Seoul. Russia only played a minor role in the Six-Party nuclear talks with North Korea, in keeping with its emphasis on Europe and the “near abroad.”

However, a new entente now appears to be in the works. Last year, Kim Yong-nam, the North’s formal head of state, attended the Sochi Olympics. Throughout the year, the two countries exchanged high-level visitors and inked a number of economic agreements. Pyongyang sent more officials to Russia than the PRC in 2014, capping the year with a trip by Choe Ryong-hae, the unofficial number two in North Korea, Choe sought Moscow’s aid in blocking UN attempts to charge the DPRK with human rights violations. Russia indicated its willingness to host a summit between the two nations’ leaders.

Both governments supplied copious rhetoric. Last fall, Putin harkened back to a “long-standing tradition of friendship and cooperation” and declared that “a further deepening of political ties and trade and economic cooperation is definitely in the interests of the peoples of both countries and ensuring regional stability and security.” Earlier this year, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry declared that the two governments would “deepen political, economic and military contacts and exchanges.”

Putin invited both North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Park Geun-hye to Russia’s Victory Day celebrations in May. If Kim were to go, it would be his first foreign trip as North Korea’s top leader. In contrast, China rebuffed Kim’s request for a meeting with President Xi Jinping. Neither Kim nor Park have announced whether they will attend the celebrations or not. It is also possible that a Kim-Putin summit would take place somewhere else in Russia or perhaps during a Putin stopover in North Korea during a future trip to Tokyo.

Although Russia’s DPRK initiatives are new, the interests at stake are old: stability on the peninsula, denuclearization of the North, improved transportation links through Asia, expanded commercial and energy activities, and enhanced diplomatic clout. Pyongyang is more ready to respond to these overtures with Beijing having turned hostile and diplomacy with the ROK and America going nowhere.

So far Moscow has invested little in its relationship with the DPRK. There is no aid, like the energy and food provided by the PRC. Last year, the Russian government confirmed a 2012 agreement providing for a 90 percent debt write-off of the $11 billion Soviet-era loans North Korea owed Russia. But this came at no cost anyhow, since the debt wasn’t going to be repaid. Despite talk of economic deals, profit is likely to prove elusive for Russia. The North is impoverished, its people lack training, and its countryside has little infrastructure.