Russia and North Korea: Old allies, new opportunities


November 16, 2015 – 

Ilya Ukhov, PolitRussia – 

Translated for Fort Russ by J. Arnoldski

“Russia is returning to North Korea”

For quite a long time, the main emphasis has been on economic development and political relations in the Far East with a focus on such giants as China and Japan. For objective reasons, they exhibit the largest economic potentials as well as the most capacious markets and existing potential in terms of attracting investments to Russian projects in our pacific regions. 

However, the increasing rivalry between world powers for the Asia-Pacific region is forcing Russia to search for and reestablish connections with our long-time military-political allies, including the DPRK. Despite obvious problems of economic construction and the unsettled nuclear problem of North Korea, the potential for Russian-North-Korean relations is quite significant, and the right approach could result in large-scale joint industrial projects, as well as result in the formation of a consolidated position on foreign policy issues. I propose that we discuss the possibilities and prospects of our cooperation with the DPRK in more detail. 

It should be noted that our relations with the North Koreans have a long-standing and entirely transparent basis. After all, the state of the DPRK itself, its army, and its industry were created with the direct participation of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent, bloody Korean War cemented the regime for many years and turned the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula into one of the main symbols of the Cold War along with the Berlin Wall.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Korea, along with other remaining, so to say, “working” states which preserved the socialist system, fell into an extremely difficult economic situation. In the case of the DPRK, the situation was exacerbated by a more or less absence of existing natural resources, an outdated and uncompetitive heavy industry, and the fact that the majority of fertile land remained in South Korea. As a result, China accounted for 90%, according to date for 2013, of North Korean exports. In 2012, trade turnover decreased by 2.4%, reaching an amount of $6.9 billion. This was the first decline since 2009. 

Compared with the People’s Republic of China, North Korean product exports to Russia are simply pathetic. In 2011, the volume of trade between the Russian Federation and the DPRK amounted to $110 million (which is almost 50 times less than the volume of DPRK trade with China and 14 times smaller than trade turnover between the DPRK and South Korea), and in 2012, exports fell to only $80 million.

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Meanwhile in 2012, Russia, in trying to strengthen its role on the Korean peninsula and improve cooperation with developing countries, wrote off North Korea’s debt to the USSR which amounted to about $10 billion and was clearly too burdensome for the not-so especially strong economy of the country. 

After writing off 90% of debt, the remaining billion became the financial basis for the implementation of joint infrastructure projects, the main one of which, of course, is the modernization of the 54 kilometer section of the railway from Khasan station in Russia to the North Korean cargo terminal port of Rajin for the organization of transit operations from the Trans-Siberian highway. It should be noted that the South Koreans had a fairly large interest in the project, since a transport corridor running through the DPRK would allow a supply of Russian hydrocarbons and, in particular, liquified natural gas from the shelf deposits of Sakhlain to be established. 

In modernizing and upgrading North Korean railways, plans were also made to organize coal exports, which is one of the main items of the country’s exports, as North Korea has an estimated 4.5 billion tons of coal in reserves. To this end, a joint Russian-North-Korean enterprise was established whose task was to restore 3,500 kilometers of railways between Chaithon and the port of Nampo, where a coal terminal is also planned to be built.

Moreover, there are more familiar and traditional areas of cooperation, the main one of which remains military-technological cooperation. It is no accident that a representative of the Russian delation visiting the DPRK headed by first deputy chief of the General Staff of Russia, Nikolay Bogdanov, spoke on this the other day. The militaries of both countries should simply find a common language, since the vast majority of military equipment of Korean People’s Army is left over from the USSR, and the Korean People’s Army itself was modeled on the Soviet military doctrine of waging large-scale land operations. If the DPRK now clearly does not have the potential to make large purchases of our military equipment, then this situation may seriously change soon. 

The point is this: the North Korean leadership can be called provocateurs or even blackmailers, but they are not fools. For many years, North Korea has been cut off from foreign markets, investments, and modern industrial, agricultural, telecommunication, and other technologies due to sanctions. However, the country has the resources which have been practically exhausted and used up in other South-East Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. They have a cheap and highly disciplined workforce. And, in fact, the realization of a joint free economic zone with the Republic of Korea in Kaesong has shown that North Korean workers work quite efficiently under the guidance of a fully capitalist management. 

Of course, the problem of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula will be resolved sooner or later (as in the case of Iran’s nuclear program). And then an economic boom in North Korea, as funny as might sound now, can be predicted. And the leadership of the DPRK, fearing the undue influence of its most powerful (and perhaps only) ally on the internal political situation in the country, has no desire to completely “lay down” before China. And here Russia and military-technological and industrial cooperation play an important stabilizing role. 

As the increasing activity of Russian diplomacy in the Far East shows, it appears that the leadership of Russia is understanding this all the more clearly. 

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