Back in the summer of 2014, there was talk among journalists and political experts about radical shifts in the power balance in the Far East in light of “Russia’s return to North Korea.”

Relations between Moscow and Pyongyang were indeed marked by a brief but intense flurry of diplomatic activity and high-ranking political visits in 2014 and 2015. And in 2014, Alexander Galushka, then minister for the development of the Russian Far East, called for Russia to increase its trade turnover with North Korea to $1 billion by 2020: almost a tenfold increase on the preceding decade, during which trade had hovered at around $100–150 million.

By the end of 2015, however, the media buzz had been forgotten, and instead of a tenfold increase, trade in 2019 amounted to a meager $48 million: less than half of what it had been.

The decline can, of course, be attributed to the sanctions imposed against North Korea by the UN Security Council in 2017. But it’s worth noting that the trade volume had not increased significantly in the three-year period between Galushka’s statement and the introduction of sanctions. Moreover, many of the plans widely discussed in 2014–2015 had been quietly abandoned by early 2016, when no sanctions were yet looming on the horizon. 

The fact is that the Russian and North Korean economies are structurally incompatible. Although, historically, trade between the Soviet Union/Russia and North Korea has been fairly significant at times, reaching $2.4 billion in the late 1980s, for example, such trade volumes were only possible because the Soviet government generously subsidized economic relations with North Korea for geopolitical reasons. Regular commercial trade always remained modest in scale.

The main issue is that Russian consumers are only interested in one thing that North Korea can competitively offer on the global market, and that is highly skilled and disciplined North Korean laborers, who are willing to toil under tough working conditions in exchange for low salaries. This is of particular interest to Russia given the chronic labor force shortages in its Far East. In fact, this practice dates back to 1946—even before the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea officially existed—and has continued virtually uninterrupted ever since, with about 10,000 to 40,000 North Korean workers present in the Russian Far East at any given time.

Another possible area of Russian-North Korean cooperation is joint infrastructure projects, of which there are currently three: the construction of the Trans-Korean Railway connected to the Trans-Siberian railway network; building a gas pipeline through North Korean territory to supply Russian natural gas to the South Korean market; and, finally, an electrical grid through North Korean territory, which would benefit energy consumers in South Korea. It’s telling that North Korea doesn’t actively participate in any of these ventures, but merely serves as a space that needs to be covered in order to most efficiently reach the South Korean market, which is what Russia is really interested in.  

The media focus shifts to infrastructure projects every time the North and South make another step toward improving their relations. These attitudes were on display in 2018, for example, when the North and South Korean railway networks were symbolically linked, but few noticed that that was not the first time the ceremony had been held.

Discussions about constructing the gas pipeline date back to the 1990s, while the idea of a railway network link has been circulating since the 2000s. Yet no concrete action has been taken on these projects: everything stops at project surveys and various symbolic events. This is not surprising, since the Russian participants see these projects as extremely risky. The Russian business community has little doubt that the Korean Peninsula will remain a region of chronic instability in the foreseeable future, and that Russian companies and banks financing infrastructure projects there are bound to fall hostage to the geopolitical situation in the region and the domestic political situation in a number of countries that play an active role there.

For instance, it’s clear that South Korean elections may sooner or later lead to the victory of right-wing conservative forces, which are likely to freeze any inter-Korean projects; and even if one U.S. president approves the pipeline construction, there is no guarantee that the participants of the project won’t fall victim to sanctions imposed by subsequent administrations. Finally, the North Korean leadership may opt for another escalation of its relations with South Korea, without any regard for the fact that the railroad or pipeline construction is already under way.

Russian companies are, therefore, prepared to work on the infrastructure projects, but unwilling to pay for them. Until another party finances them, such as the North Korean government, or there have been ten to fifteen years of stability on the Korean Peninsula, or Russian companies receive reliable assurances that their possible (and very likely) losses will be offset (for example, by the Russian government), the infrastructure projects will remain on the drawing board. 

In the current situation, the North Korean government would really like to see Russia, which has long been on the sidelines of the geopolitical games around the northern part of the peninsula, drawn once again into the complex schemes and competition of the great powers. This would allow Pyongyang to use Russia as a counterbalance to both the United States and China, as well as possibly South Korea and Japan.

The Russian government, for its part, views all the North Korean issues as secondary. At present, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, Moscow’s policy on North Korea rests on three main objectives, which have a clear hierarchical order. The first and most important is maintaining domestic stability in North Korea, and the second is preventing the unification of the Korean Peninsula, while solving the nuclear problem is only in third place.

Moscow doesn’t want any crises in North Korea primarily because in the current situation Russia lacks the ability to use any possible changes to its advantage. Moscow is concerned that a domestic political crisis in North Korea could lead to the downfall of the Kim regime, which would bring about a sharp escalation of tensions on Russia’s Far East borders. No one in Moscow wishes for chaos in a neighboring country with large stockpiles of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

If a domestic policy crisis were resolved through China’s intervention and the establishment of a pro-China regime in North Korea, that wouldn’t be in Russia’s interests either: Moscow doesn’t want Beijing to strengthen its position in the region too far. 

Russia is therefore interested in preserving the status quo. But if that status quo is altered, Moscow will strive to restore stability in the region as quickly as possible. To Moscow, a unified Korea led by Seoul; North Korea under partial Chinese control; or North Korea under the Kim dynasty are all lesser evils than North Korea in a state of chaos, let alone the Korean Peninsula in a state of war.

Russia’s second strategic objective on the Korean Peninsula is the preservation of the separation between the North and South, although for diplomatic reasons, this objective is hardly ever explicitly stated. Few in Russia doubt that unification, regardless of how it proceeds, would mean the takeover of the impoverished North by the affluent South. Such a turn of events would create quite a strong state on Russia’s Far East borders that would probably continue to be allied with the United States: not a prospect that Russia’s current leaders relish (nor, in all likelihood, one that their successors would). Of course, South Korean-led reunification would bring new economic opportunities, but they shouldn’t be overstated.

As for Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, Russia is periodically accused of turning a blind eye to them, or even of tacitly encouraging them. That’s not true, of course: direct or indirect support of North Korean nuclear ambitions clearly runs counter to Russian interests. Russia’s status as one of the five official nuclear powers under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty affords it enormous military strategic and political advantages, while the proliferation of nuclear weapons erodes that status and privileged position. 

Nevertheless, Russian expert and diplomatic communities have long subscribed to the opinion that the North Korean leadership won’t relinquish nuclear weapons under any circumstances in the foreseeable future. This is no reason to abandon negotiations on the nuclear issue, but in Moscow’s view, the problem is more likely to be resolved through control over Pyongyang’s existing nuclear arsenal rather than its nuclear disarmament. 

In addition, Russia understands that while pressure from sanctions is unlikely to sway the North Korean leadership to give up nuclear weapons, it may well provoke an internal political crisis. These considerations prompt Russia to accept the existence of a nuclear but stable North Korea. 

Russia’s interests and objectives in North Korea are generally similar to those of China, which, unlike Russia, treats the North Korean problem as a central one, due to its centuries-old ties with the country and the proximity of its major cities to the North Korean border. In the mid-2010s, before the Security Council sanctions were imposed, North Korea’s trade turnover with China was $6 billion: about 50–60 times greater than with Russia. In many ways, the huge disparity can be attributed to economic and geographical reasons, but it also reflects the comparative importance that Moscow and Beijing place on their relations with Pyongyang.

Since Russia and China have similar interests vis-à-vis North Korea, and the country is not geopolitically important for Russia, Moscow prefers to take Beijing’s lead in determining its North Korea policy. This makes sense, given that Moscow and Beijing’s interests overlap, but the stakes are immeasurably higher for Beijing. 

“Russia’s return to North Korea” will no doubt continue to make headlines periodically, but in reality, there is little chance of drastic change in the two countries’ relationship in the foreseeable future.

This publication was made possible by a grant from the Korea Foundation.

  • Andrei Lankov