It seems like every time my phone buzzes, it’s news on Russia and North Korea popping up in my notifications. The headlines are jarring: “North Korea launches another missile test,” or “Russian cyberhackers, where will they strike next?” Most Americans realize that we have sour relations with these two countries; however, few seem to realize the connections between the two. North Korea and Russia have been allies since the Soviet period. It is important to recognize that this brotherhood of nations still exists today and may have dire implications for the United States.
Even though Russian foreign policy is in constant support of the sanctions against North Korea, in recent months, Russia refused to support sanctions that would result in the collapse of the regime. Instead it has expanded its economic assistance to North Korea, playing a key role in improving North Korea’s economic isolation. On Jan. 31, 2017, the Russian state news agency stated that representatives from Russia Railways were visiting North Korea to discuss extended opportunities for bilateral study abroad exchange for students in addition to greater railway cooperation. The project includes expanded training for North Korean Engineers at Russian universities. In addition, Moscow has also settled North Korea’s debt to Russia, Russia agreeing to write off 90 percent of the $11 billion debt. Moscow’s desire to continue the project’s development despite South Korean objection highlights the strength of its relationship with the North Korean regime.
As China’s oil supplies to North Korea have been periodically disrupted due to tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang, Moscow’s importance as an investor in the North Korean energy sector has increased markedly and has encouraged pro-Russian policies. Siberian oil companies have sold fuel to North Korea through a route that connects Vladivostok to Rajin. These fuel supplies have provided the North Korean regime with vital hard currency, currency that will not fluctuate, unlike the North Korean won.
Because Russia has acted as an economic ally to North Korea, Kim Jong Un has publicly supported North Korea’s partnership with Moscow and increased its shipments of workers to construction projects throughout Siberia. This mutually beneficial relationship provides Vladimir Putin with a source of cheap, slave-like labor for his modernization projects in Vladivostok. In turn, North Korea receives economic validation and can therefore be considered a functioning State in the world community.
The United States, especially under President Donald Trump, assumes that Russia’s strengthened alliance with North Korea is a symbolic anti-American display. If relations between the United States and Russia continue to falter, Putin is likely to further punish the West. If necessary, it is likely that Putin may resume weapons deliveries to Pyongyang to further uphold the Northern regime.
North Korea is becoming more aggressive, and Russia’s next move will be key to sustaining its relations with the country. Relations between Russia and the United States may also play a role in influencing North Korea’s actions. Even though Russian and American interests in the Korean peninsula are far from identical, they overlap enough that close cooperation may become unavoidable. As the State Department representative for North Korea policy Sung Kim said in January 2015, “alignment on the core goal of de-nuclearization remains as strong as ever.” He went on to state that “Russia will remain an important player in our diplomacy with the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).” Even so, Moscow’s willingness to cooperate with the United States on Korean Peninsula issues will be directly linked to the general condition of Russian-US relations.
Since Trump bombed the Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria in place of bombing terrorist rebels, relations between the two powers have become increasingly tense. Some analysts have gone as far as to say that the tensions between Moscow and Washington are at a post-Cold War low. If they become even more contentious, Russia will certainly obstruct Washington’s intentions for Korea. Putin’s strategy within the Korean Peninsula appears to go much deeper than meets the eye. His next move in response to the most recent missile launch is likely to affect the entire world.