Russian policy on the Korean Peninsula, and especially on North Korea, is at a crossroads. Realizing that it has limited ability to influence the situation, Moscow has long tried to participate in the major diplomatic processes relating to North Korea without being overly active. Now the increasing strategic rivalry between the United States and China—the two global superpowers of the twenty-first century—and the deepening rift between Moscow and the West present the Kremlin with a choice. Russia can continue with its current policy in Northeast Asia, including the Korean Peninsula, thus maintaining its strategic autonomy, or it can express greater support for Beijing, which will inevitably lead to a shift in Russia’s Asia policy, including its Korea vector. 

Having restored its connections with North Korea in the 2000s to near Soviet-era levels, Moscow has assumed a special role in North Korea’s foreign relations. Unlike China, it’s not trying to pull North Korea into its sphere of influence, direct its foreign policy, or significantly influence the nature of its domestic reforms. Nor is it bent on changing the North Korean regime and destroying the state created by the Kim dynasty, unlike the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

Russia does have its own interests in North Korea, which are largely military and diplomatic: the bilateral trade volume (only $225 million at its peak in 2005) makes it a negligible issue for Russia. The issue of Asian security, on the other hand, is key to Moscow, which has long understood North Korea’s importance in the context of regional security in Northeast Asia. Now, with a full-scale confrontation between China and the United States under way, North Korea is becoming a crucial factor.

Moscow has never been happy about Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, but its unofficial position on this issue is that North Korea’s denuclearization is unrealistic in the foreseeable future, so instead of focusing on eliminating the nuclear program, Russia should try to keep military and political disagreements from escalating to a military conflict. 

Primorsky Krai, the Russian region adjacent to the peninsula, connects Russia with Asian countries through seaports served by two strategic rail links: the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Baikal–Amur Mainline (BAM). Hence, a conflict that brings about the destruction of the regional economy, the flight of refugees, and environmental disaster may threaten the entire Russian economic strategy in Asia. In this context, despite being concerned by nuclear weapons tests, the Kremlin’s approach to the Korean Peninsula has been that of a well-informed and largely independent player who kept in close contact with the North Korean leadership. 

Events took a dramatic turn in 2017, when the Donald Trump administration first recognized the failure of a long-standing U.S. policy of “strategic tolerance” toward North Korea, and then tried to solve the problem by applying “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang. At the same time, Beijing engaged in unprecedented cooperation with Washington on the North Korean nuclear problem in an effort to build good relations with the Trump administration and postpone a full-blown conflict with the United States. As a result, Russia found itself in an unusual situation, with China joining the United States in putting pressure on Moscow to formulate a tougher position against North Korea. Under these circumstances, it became impossible for Russia to protect even the aspects of relations with North Korea that Moscow considered especially important and had previously shielded from sanctions, such as North Korean labor migrants working in Russia’s Far East. Russia eventually supported tough UN sanctions against North Korea, which predictably led to a dip in bilateral economic relations.

Although Trump’s “maximum pressure” tactic didn’t force North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, it did foster the temporary stabilization of the situation on the Korean Peninsula and three unprecedented summits between the U.S. president and the North Korean leader. At the same time, the escalating situation resulted in positive developments in China-North Korea relations: on the eve of his first summit with Trump, Kim Jong Un visited China and spoke with Xi Jinping several times. 

Paradoxically, the stabilization of the situation around North Korea (in large part thanks to tactical cooperation between Beijing and Washington) cleared the way for a full-scale Sino-American conflict. No longer in need of Xi’s support on North Korea, Trump unleashed a trade war against China. The countries entered a period of sharp, intensifying, and irreversible confrontation that pervaded all aspects of bilateral relations. This confrontation has been thrust to the center stage of global politics and will remain there for many years to come. Accordingly, all the players in the region now seek to formulate their positions within the framework of the conflict between the two superpowers.

The Korean Peninsula will inevitably draw growing attention from Washington and Beijing as the United States and China struggle for influence in the Asia-Pacific. China is increasingly interested in strengthening its influence on North Korea. This would both enhance Beijing’s efforts to contain U.S. military power in Asia, and allow it to influence South Korea. Beijing appears to view South Korea as a weak link in the U.S. system of military alliances due to its dependence on Chinese markets, and will therefore try to weaken Seoul’s ties to Washington.

It was in South Korea that Beijing tested (successfully, it claimed) its restricted weapons in 2016–2017 in response to the deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system. In October 2017, South Korea was effectively forced to recognize China’s special security interests on the Korean Peninsula by signing a “three nos” agreement: no additional THAAD deployments in South Korea, no participation in a U.S.-led strategic missile defense system, and no creation of a trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan. Obviously, Washington is certain to respond to these developments, which will turn the Korean Peninsula into one of the most important diplomatic, geoeconomic, and military fronts in the Sino-American conflict.

Under these conditions, Pyongyang’s task will be to exploit the rifts between the superpowers to gain additional opportunities. Another round of diplomatic games—North Korea-style, with its trademark succession of escalation and de-escalation periods—is likely after 2021, when we find out what the new U.S. administration will look like. In any case, all of this makes the situation on the Korean Peninsula even more alarming—and important to Russia.

The changing global and regional context presents Russia with a choice. The prospects for improvement in the U.S.-Chinese conflict look gloomy regardless of the U.S. election results, but Russia is yet to determine how deeply it wants to be involved in the Sino-American standoff in Asia and to what extent it wants to cooperate with China.

Until recently, Russia mostly influenced the situation in East Asia by opposing the United States in other parts of the world (Europe and the Middle East), thus preventing the United States from concentrating all of its efforts on China. In 2019, there were signs of growing Sino-Russian cooperation in the Pacific directed specifically against Washington, such as a joint air patrol in July 2019 by Russian and Chinese bombers that allegedly violated the airspace over the island of Dokdo, which happens to be disputed by two U.S. allies: South Korea and Japan. In addition, Russia continues to expand its military-technological cooperation with China by selling Beijing cutting-edge weapons, helping it to create a missile attack early warning system, and conducting large-scale and regular joint military exercises. 

But despite such serious steps toward closer cooperation with Beijing, Russia’s Asia policy remains largely independent of China. Moscow was engaged in strategic dialogue with Japan’s Shinzo Abe administration (2012–2020) and hopes to continue the same level of communication with Tokyo under the new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga. It also sells weapons to India and Vietnam and is trying to build relations with Seoul. 

The escalating conflict between the United States and China poses a question to Moscow: should it continue with its current policy in the hope of stabilizing relations with the United States at their current level and avoiding involvement in the battle between the two superpowers with unpredictable results? Or should it support China more actively, turning the Pacific region into another stage for the U.S.-Russia confrontation? This would allow Russia to receive some preferential treatment from China and simultaneously weaken the United States, which Moscow considers its key adversary. This fundamental choice will inform future Russian policy on the Korean Peninsula.

If Russia chooses to eschew the U.S.-China confrontation in Asia, Moscow’s line on North Korea will be similar to what it is now. Russia will try to preserve as close as possible communication with Pyongyang to understand the decisions made by the North Korean leadership, and will use all the instruments at its disposal—especially within the UN—to maintain the status quo, above all military stability on the Korean Peninsula. But should Russia choose the second strategy, we may see a more active policy toward North Korea, conducted in close coordination with China. Moscow will use all available avenues to intensify its cooperation with Pyongyang and work in tandem with Beijing to reduce the effectiveness of U.S. economic pressure on North Korea.

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

  • Vassily Kashin