Written by Brian Benedictus.
The December 2013 execution of Jang Song-thaek, Uncle of North leader Kim Jong-un and Beijing’s most trusted official within the country, was widely seen by many North Korea watchers as the starting point of relations between the two countries plummeting to their lowest level in history. Last July, Xi Jinping became the first Chinese head of state to visit South Korea before first travelling to its long time North Korean ally. On Wednesday, Russia announced that the North Korea’s leader has accepted an invitation to Moscow this May to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe (although it is not known if the DPRK will send its official Head of State, Kim Yong-nam as its representative), which would mark Kim Jong-un’s first visit abroad as leader of North Korea (although a recent report has Indonesia inviting Kim to that country’s Bandung Conference in April).
China has offered the DPRK recent diplomatic support, at least publicly, over the latter’s suspected role in the December Sony cyberattack, as well voicing its opposition to a United Nations Security Council debate on referring the North Korean government to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on human rights abuse charges. Yet Pyongyang continues to frustrate its long-time ally by refusing to cease its nuclear weapons program and missile testing, two programs which the DPRK sees as vital in discouraging potential military action that would likely result in the dissolution of the current regime. China’s concerns of a destabilized North Korea, resulting in a potential refugee crisis on its borders, or a United States-led occupation of a unified Korea, means that China will continue to have a vested interest in the current government in Pyongyang remaining stable, thus continuing as the DPRK’s primary economic trading partner. This over reliance on Beijing has frustrated North Korea in recent years, as it’s recent overtures to once close allies (Russia) and long-time adversaries (Japan, South Korea, and the United States) offer evidence that it is seeking to diversify its “economic portfolio” in order to give itself more options, allowing it to operate more freely from Chinese pressure. The likelihood of the DPRK finding a viable replacement for its current primary economic trading partner appears slim. The most likely candidate for such a country is Russia.
As part of “Putin’s Pivot”, which is meant to counter the American shift of economic and military interests into Eastern Asia, Russia has in recent years sought to enhance its reputation with a number of states in the region–including North Korea. Such measures have included Russia’s writing off of nearly ten billion dollars in debt that has lingered since the Soviet era, as well as a pledge by Russia to invest over one billion dollars into a trans-Siberian railway that would eventually link North and South Korea, allowing for Russia to export gas to South Korea’s ever-expanding economy. Russia and the DPRK have also recently agreed on creating and expanding a number of bilateral projects, including North Korea agreeing to issue multi-entry visas to Russian citizens, the formation of a bilateral business council, and the surprising announcement that Russian businesses conducting trade through North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank could make payments in the Russian ruble currency.
Yet for all of the positive developments that have taken place within the past year between the two states, Russia’s interests and domestic political realities will place limitations on how far Moscow can (or even wants to) enhance its ties with the DPRK. The global fall in oil prices has placed Russia’s resource dependent economy into a a state of crisis, as Moscow is currently tapping heavily into its foreign currency reserves, facing high levels of inflation, and raising interest rates in the attempt to stave of growing domestic frustration within Russia. Pyongyang should not be expecting “no strings attached” economic packages from Russia in the near future—packages that were something of a regular occurrence from China until the recent fallout resulted in a decline in trade in 2014 between the two countries, marking the first decline since 2009.
Russia-Sino relations were described by Russian President Putin in 2014 as being at an “all time high”, a statement that was backed up by a massive $400 billion dollar gas deal between the two countries after decades of negotiations. It is immediately apparent that Russia’s economic interests with China dwarf that of any it currently does, or even would have with North Korea. Yet while China would likely appreciate in sharing the diplomatic headaches that come with being one of Pyongyang’s primary economic trading partners, Beijing’s ability in at least nominally restraining that country’s provocative nuclear and missile programs rest on it remaining as North Korea’s primary benefactor and trading partner. Therefore, while Russia will still seek to enhance ties with Pyongyang, it will not do so to the extent that it would be willing to jeopardize its current (and potentially much more lucrative) state of affairs with Beijing.
These political realities do not offer a great deal of leverage for North Korea’s leadership’s attempt to formulate a drastic diplomatic shift away from China at the current time. While it can continue in its attempts to enhance its historical relationship with Russia, there will be limitations to the benefits Moscow can provide. Pyongyang’s most recent attempts at presenting an olive branch to South Korea is also ripe with roadblocks–none of which is larger than Seoul’s security partner, the United States, which views such overtures with a great deal of skepticism. From the perspective of Pyongyang, its current set of economic alternatives from shifting away from China are murky at best, and more than likely highly restrained. Sooner than later, its leadership might have to return to China, hat in hand, if it wants to retain its grip on power in the Hermit Kingdom.
Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues. He is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian owns the blog Warm Oolong Tea. Image credit: CC by Roman Harak/Flickr.