Russia regards a denuclearised North Korea as in its interests but is likely to remain relatively marginal in the six-party talks that seek an end to Pyongyang’s weapons program.
North Korea-Russia Relations: A Strained Friendship,* the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines the bilateral relations between Moscow and Pyongyang as they impact on regional and global security and affect the North’s proliferation behaviour. Relations between the two countries have been marked by unrealistic expectations and frequent disappointments, but common interests have prevented a rupture.
Russian President Putin has mostly been unable to assert himself prominently in North East Asia, and North Korea has received neither the unalloyed political support, nor the economic backing it seeks. Energy is a major mutual interest, but there is unlikely to be much growth in bilateral cooperation unless the nuclear crisis is resolved.
“Since Putin visited Pyongyang in 2000, diplomatic initiatives have come undone, and economic projects have faltered”, says Daniel Pinkston, Crisis Group Senior Analyst. “Russia is arguably the least effective participant in the six-party nuclear talks”.
Russia has more influence in the region than it did in the 1990s but not enough to change the equation on the Korean peninsula. It regards de-nuclearisation of the North as in its interests and considers its relations with the other countries in the six-party talks more important than its ties to Pyongyang. It has shown interest in building energy and transport links through North Korea, but investments have been hindered by the North’s unreliability. Although Pyongyang has discussed economic cooperation, it has failed to reform its economy sufficiently for foreign investment. However, it is interested in technical and scientific aid and wants Russia to balance China’s growing influence.
The North’s economic troubles might be moderated by Russia’s support in energy, transportation and direct aid. North Korean professionals could begin travelling again to Russia to gain experience and scientific know-how, and Russian businesses could benefit from refurbishing North Korea’s industrial infrastructure.
The slow realignment of Russia’s and North Korea’s diplomatic and economic interests is likely to continue. North Korea needs a resolution of the nuclear crisis to get aid and better relations with the U.S., and Russia needs regional stability to encourage economic projects among neighbours and to continue rebuilding its global prestige.
“Despite the considerable mutual economic and political interests, however, progress is likely to be inhibited by lingering suspicions and hesitancy to seize opportunities”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director.