Written by Alex Calvo.
When discussing North Korea, many observers tend to focus on relations with South Korea, the United States, China, and Japan. But we should not forget Pyongyang’s “other neighbour”, Russia. The confirmation that Kim Jong-Un will be attending WWII victory celebrations in Moscow, his first foreign trip since 2011 and one directly connected to the regime’s foundational narrative, plus the agreement between Russian RusHydro hydroelectricity company and South Korean K-Water governmental agency, serve as powerful reminders that Moscow remains a significant actor in the Korean Peninsula.
Concerning the victory celebrations surrounding the “Great Patriotic War”, on 28 January Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, informed Interfax news agency that “the participation of the North Korean leader has been confirmed, we are preparing for his arrival”. For Russia, the Soviet role in bringing down Nazi Germany and her suffering during the war remain a fundamental pillar of the country’s self-image and soft power abroad, as well as the necessary element making it possible to avoid a wholesale rejection of the Stalinist period. In the case of North Korea, much of the regime’s public discourse is based on the real or alleged guerilla activities of founder Kim Il-sung. This is also connected to Pyongyang’s aggressive anti-Japanese rhetoric. Thus, the commemoration of the end of the Second World War offers both Moscow and Pyongyang a good opportunity to stress their historical credentials and support their state narratives. Furthermore, adding to the event’s diplomatic potential, on 9 February Russian ambassador to Seoul Alexander Timonin announced that Moscow had also invited South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
With regard to the energy cooperation agreement between Russia and South Korea, open to North Korean participation, we should say first of all that it fits squarely with Moscow’s long-standing attempt to diversify her foreign economic relations away from Europe, while avoiding excessive reliance on China. As Natasha C. Kuhrt has noted, Moscow is “attempting to diversify relations in the region away from China due to the over-dependence of Russia’s Far Eastern region on China in economic terms”. A successful policy along these lines requires greater energy exports to both South Korea and Japan, involving the construction of the necessary physical infrastructure and the laying down of the requisite political agreements. Furthermore, it also demands in the case of exports to South Korea cooperation from the North, which has the added benefit for Moscow of lessening the latter’s dependence on China. This is also in the interest of Japan, although Russo-Japanese relations are complex and difficult, and Tokyo’s need to secure American support to face a rising China means the scope for a more imaginative policy towards Moscow is more restricted than it would otherwise be. Territorial and, above all, historical tensions between Tokyo and Seoul also remain high. Despite this, Russia being a major energy exporter and Japan a correspondingly significant energy importer, and both being wary of China’s renaissance, the rationale for improved cooperation remains. A similar logic can be applied to relations between Moscow and Seoul.
The agreement between RusHydro and K-Water, signed on 30 January under the auspices of the Ministry for Development of the Russian Far East is significant in and by itself plus because it is open to North Korean participation. At this stage it seems more akin to a framework, rather than a detailed blueprint, since in the words of Alexander Galushka, Minister for Development of the Russian Far East, “We have agreed on the creation of a working group, so that we will be able to formulate definitive proposals on direct investments in the Far East and on collaboration between RusHydro and K-water by mid-April”. Galushka also explained that “Our North Korean partners have agreed that the Russian side, including RusHydro, will negotiate with our South Korean partners on the implementation of trilateral projects”. These projects include an “energy-bridge” connecting Russia and South Korea through North Korea, and the modernization of North Korea’s power industry infrastructure. Actually three-way cooperation has already begun, with Russia exporting coal to South Korea through the North Korean port of Rajin (the most northerly all-year ice-free port in the Asian continent) for the first time last year. This followed the refurbishment of a wharf and the construction of a rail link to Russia by RasonKonTrans, a joint venture between the North Korean Ministry of Railways and Russian Railways. The project is aimed at facilitating Russian exports and relieving the congestion of the country’s Pacific ports, but it is not difficult to imagine Pyongyang welcoming a diversification of her foreign economic relations and a lessening of her dependence on Beijing. Some reports point out that should the project be successful, South Korea will acquire half the Russian stake (70 %) in RasonKonTrans. Russia already sells coal to Japan.
Despite these ongoing projects and future plans, the economic development of Russia’s Far East remains a challenge, with population still dropping. Authorities are planning to develop the Russian section of Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island (shared with China, which calls it Heixiazi) in cooperation with Beijing, and are also discussing the possibility of handing out free land to existing and new inhabitants. Although Moscow’s intention is to coordinate these policies with Beijing, Chinese netizens have already criticized the plans. Unless Moscow can succeed in strengthening the economy and demography of her Far East, her ambitious plans for cooperation with the two Koreas and Japan are unlikely to come to fruition, and instead Russia may have to face a much more aggressive China. In particular if Beijing succeeds in breaking out of the First Island Chain and thus gains additional room to confront Russia.
One of Putin’s foreign policy challenges in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region is thus to position Russia as the key unlocking the long conflict in the Korean Peninsula, by brokering pragmatic arrangements involving Pyongyang and Seoul, and ideally Tokyo. This would serve the Russian national interest but would also benefit North Korea, uncomfortably dependent on Beijing, South Korea, looking for a way out of a seemingly intractable confrontation, and Japan, one of whose worst nightmares is the consolidation of a Moscow-Beijing axis, also stand to gain. Would it also be in the national interest of the United States? As long as the Intermarium(belt of land between the Baltic and the Black Seas) remains a battleground this is unlikely to be perceived this way, but if relations between Russia and the West improved both may come to see the Korean Peninsula as fertile ground for cooperation, as some voices are already pointing out.
Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) and CPI Blog Regular Contributor. He focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He is also a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). Dr Calvo is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons.