Russia And North Korea, Rebirth Of A Convenient Alliance

Face to face
Face to face
Philippe Pons

SEOUL — For a long time, China was the only ally of real consequence of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This is no longer the case, as Moscow and Pyongyang have been edging closer together over the past year.

Russia’s multiplying contacts on the North Korean spectrum, where it has played a very discrete role in the past, will not be without consequences on an international level. The North Korean question is indeed one of the rare issues on which the United States and its allies have shared the same position as the Kremlin.

Publicly opposed to Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, Russia could grow less receptive in the future to American arguments advocating the isolation of the DPKR, explains Georgy Toloraya, from the Institute of Economy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in a publication on the website 38 North.

There was a notable coincidence on Nov. 18: while the Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations for Human Rights adopted a draft resolution asking the Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court for abuses committed, Choe Ryong-hae, the DPKR's Secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, was on an official visit to Moscow, where he was received by Vladimir Putin. At the end of the meetings, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the UN resolution “counter-productive,” and judged that the organs of the United Nations should not become “judicial instruments.”

Choe Ryong-hae is indeed considered Kim Jong-un’s right-hand man. In 2013, he was the North Korean leader's envoy in Beijing, where he was received by Xi Jinping, and was part of the triumvirate that went to Seoul in October for the closing of the Asian Games. His visit to Moscow was the third of a North Korean senior official in a year.

“The DPRK could next aim for a meeting at the highest level,” says Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst from Seoul’s Sejong University, referring to a possible Putin-Kim Jong-un summit.

Bilateral exchanges

The DPRK is looking to break out of its isolation, and loosen its dependency on China, which accounts for 80% for its external exchanges. Despite statements on the unfailing friendship between the two countries, the Chinese are irritated by the DPRK's nuclear ambitions, while the North Koreans increasingly don't trust their neighbors.

Xi Jinping, who has never been to Pyongyang, visited Seoul in July. In the past, North Korea benefited from the help of its Chinese and Soviet mentors by cleverly weighing its moves. The situation is different today, though Pyongyang now sees in Moscow more potential for a deeper partnership.

Russia, whose relations with the U.S. and the EU have largely disintegrated with the Ukrainian crisis, “measures the strategic importance of the DPRK more,” says Park Byung-in of the Kyungnam University in Seoul.

Blocked in the West, Moscow is turning towards the East more and more and could use the DPRK as a new card in its deck in the standoff with Washington. These past few months, as Western sanctions were imposed to punish Russia, Moscow was signing successive cooperation agreements with Pyongyang.

It is a new chapter in the bilateral relations. After turning its back on the DPRK after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow renewed its ties with Pyongyang in February 2000 with a Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighborly Relations and Cooperation, followed by a Putin appearance in Pyongyang and, the year after, by Kim Jong-il in Moscow.

Kim Jong-il and Vladimir Putin in 2002 — Photo: Presidential Press and Information Office

In August 2011, in Ulan-Ude, Russia, Kim Jong-il and Dmitry Medvedev launched two large projects: a gas pipeline joining Russia and South Korea via the DPRK and the refurbishment of the railroad track between the Russian border and the Rason Special Economic Zone, in North Korea, so as to, one day, be able to join the railroad networks of the North and the South with the trans-Siberian. Such a link would reduce the merchandise delivery time by half between the peninsula and Europe via the Suez Canal.

Because of Seoul’s reluctance, the gas pipeline project was put on hold. But the refurbishment of 54 kilometers of railroad was completed in September 2013 that will allow Russia to use Rason, an ice-free port in winter, as a container terminal in order to relieve the congested Vladivostok terminal.

Risks of patience

The cooperation between the two countries has been reinforced in recent months: in April, Russia cancelled 90% of the North Korean debt ($10.9 billion) which had accumulated during the Soviet era; and the two countries decided to use rubles for their bilateral exchanges, allowing the DPRK to reduce its dependency on the dollar. The exchanges between North Korea and Russia, for now quite low ($100 million in 2013), could reach $1 billion by 2020.

In 2013, Russian petrol exports to the DPRK have increased by 58.5% compared to the previous year, for a total of $36 million. Moscow plans to renovate half of the North Korean railroad network (7,000 kilometers) in exchange for access to its mining resources.

The Russians, who have experience working with the North Koreans dating back to the Soviet era, are aware of the difficulties of such a cooperation. Still, they see major potential to be well-placed to reap the benefits before Pyongyang opens up to other countries (South Korea, the U.S., Japan, the EU), notes Alexander Vorontsov, of the Moscow University, on 38 North.

For Andreï Lankov, of Kookmin University in Seoul, Russia has neither the desire nor the means to replace China as the singular mentor of the DPRK. But this rapprochement nevertheless introduces a new fluidity in a diplomatic game that has largely been at a stalemate since the U.S. began to pursue what some call a “patience strategy” with North Korea of wait and see.

Now, eyes from Beijing to Washington to the Korean peninsula will also increasingly be on Moscow.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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