By Troy Stangarone
At first glance, the prospect of a summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin makes sense. Both Russia and North Korea find themselves increasingly isolated internationally and a summit meeting presents a potential opportunity to demonstrate that they are not as isolated as some may believe. However, below the surface, a meeting between Putin and Kim has deeper roots in ties that predate the current tensions. In light of the current geopolitical environment, however, could a summit meeting not only continue to deepen ties between Moscow and Pyongyang, but also break North Korea’s diplomatic isolation and change the dynamics in Northeast Asia?
Why a Russia-North Korea Summit Meeting?
Since Russia began actively intervening in Ukraine and annexed Crimea, it has faced increasing international isolation and sanctions. At the recent G-20 Summit in Australia, Putin left early after facing mounting pressure to end Russia’s support for the Ukrainian rebels, while relations with the United States in particular have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
Similarly, North Korea has also faced increasing international isolation under Kim Jong-un. Despite the historic ties between China and North Korea, Beijing has begun to distance itself from Pyongyang. Xi Jinping has yet to meet with Kim Jong-un while having met with South Korean President Park Geun-hye five times. At the same time, North Korea has faced increasing international criticism over its abuse of human rights in the aftermath of UN Commission of Inquiry’s report earlier this year and a vote in a UN General Assembly Committee on human rights calling for the Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court in response to its abuses.
But are Russia and North Korea’s current circumstances driving them closer together or are there other factors? The improvement in relations between Russia and North Korea predates the current tensions that many analysts see as drawing the two sides together. Russia’s move earlier this year to forgive 90 percent of North Korea’s Soviet era debt actually dates back to an agreement in 2012, while the Rajin-Khasin rail link that recently carried a test run for shipping Russian coal to South Korea via the port in Rajin was completed in 2011. Additionally, Russian efforts to build a pipeline across North Korea date back to well before the current tensions and have previously been stymied by North Korean provocations.
What Could a Russia-North Korea Summit Achieve?
In the current geopolitical climate a summit meeting would allow both Russia and North Korea to demonstrate that they are not as isolated internationally as some may think. For North Korea, a summit meeting would allow it to signal to the United States that it cannot be isolated internationally and to China that it has options other than Beijing for political and economic support, especially if the summit were to push forward some of the proposed Russia-North Korea economic projects.
For Russia, the issue is likely more complex. As a result of Russia’s current tensions with the United States, there may be appeal in engaging North Korea at a time that the United States is trying to isolate the regime and demonstrating that Russia is a major international player to be dealt with. However, because Russia’s interests in Northeast Asia are more complex than acting in opposition to the United States a summit meeting with North Korea should be viewed through the prism of Russian interests in Northeast Asia rather than international tensions with the United States and the West.
A Matryoshka of Interests in Northeast Asia
Much as with the traditional Russian matryoshka, or nesting dolls, Russia’s interests in Northeast Asia are varied and multilayered. In the context of Russia’s current relations with the West, it is easy to see Russia’s antagonistic relationship with the United States and its revisionist international aims as a reason for the warming relations between Moscow and Pyongyang. However, underneath that first layer, or Russian doll, rest deeper interests.
Russia has long sought to restore the status it lost as a great power in Northeast Asia with the end of the Soviet Union and to develop its resource-rich Far East. South Korea and Japan present lucrative markets for Russian gas and other natural resources in the Far East. However, to complete the rail link through North Korea to the South and establish a rail line from Busan to Lisbon, or build a gas pipeline across the peninsula, requires peace and stability on the Korean peninsula to make these projects economically viable. From this perspective, Russia is likely seeking to increase its influence in Pyongyang to help moderate the regime and further its own ends rather than acting in opposition to the United States. From Russia’s perspective, that would merely make its course of action more appealing.
At the same time, despite the current disputes with the United States and the West, Russia still desires to be seen as an important international player that can work with other nations to solve international problems. While the worsening of relations with the United States could lead to an end of cooperation on addressing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, that does not have to be the case. In the ongoing talks with Iran, Russia has continued to play an important and constructive role.
Implications of a Russia-North Korea Summit
Given the strategic and economic interests of Russia in the region, it is unlikely that a summit meeting between Russia and North Korea would be the first step in a new Cold War alignment in Northeast Asia with Russia, China, and North Korea on one side and the United States, Japan, and South Korea on the other. Instead, Russia’s interests in the region require a more complex set of relationships.
Russia needs good relations with South Korea to make investments such as the new rail access into Rason and a gas pipeline to supply South Korea and Japan economically viable. This argues against Russia becoming North Korea’s protector, as for with China, South Korea is the key economic and political actor in the equation. These realities are likely to moderate any agreements between North Korea and Russia that might come out of a summit as Russia is more likely to look to create an environment that encourages South Korea to further engage in economic development projects than to take a course of action that would put Russia at odds with South Korea.
Further, there are diplomatic risks for Russia and North Korea. Rather than ending North Korea’s isolation in the region, Russia and North Korea run the risk of looking like the new odd couple in Northeast Asia as China seeks to strengthen its ties with South Korea and Xi Jinping shows little inclination to meet with Kim Jong-un in the absence of progress on winding down North Korea’s nuclear program.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from the World Economic Forum’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.