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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.

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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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