Illusions of a summit with Russia
North Korea is busy pursuing a pro-Russian policy, having dispatched a special envoy to Moscow to promote a Russo-North Korea summit and conducting a trial run of the Rajin-Khasan project, which includes the construction of a 54-kilometer (34-mile) railway from the Russian city of Khasan to the North Korean port of Rajin and the opening of a new transshipment terminal.
However, colluding with Russia, which confronted international sanctions for its invasion into Ukraine, will only deepen North Korea’s isolation and worsen its economy.
Choe Ryong-hae, the No. 2 in North Korea, was sent as a special envoy to deliver a hand-written letter from Kim Jong-un to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The decision was taken as a sign that North Korea was attempting to win over Russia. It was also seen as a reaction by Pyongyang to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in July to Seoul. Until then, it was unprecedented that a top Chinese leader would visit Seoul first, rather than Pyongyang.
China maintains that President Xi’s visit to Seoul was a natural consequence, as Beijing wanted to conclude its long-awaited China-Korea Free Trade Agreement. However, it must have been a shock to North Korea - a shock that comes close to the one Pyongyang suffered when Beijing announced, without advance notice, the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1992.
Moreover, China has changed its position on North Korea’s nuclear program, clearly asserting that “there shall be no China-North Korea summit meeting as long as North Korea does not clarify its will for denuclearization.”
On the other hand, the diplomatic interests of North Korea and Russia happen to coincide, as the two are both sanctioned in the international community. Russia is in conflict with the European Union (EU) and the United States over its invasion into Ukraine and recently switched its diplomatic focus to Asia, where it is trying to accelerate economic cooperation with North Korea.
On North Korea’s side, a diplomatic breakthrough is urgent given its international isolation due to its nuclear program and dire human rights record. It also wants to reduce its heavy economic reliance on China, with which relations have become strained.
Kim Jong-un has pinned high hopes on a summit with Putin, hoping that it will result in a diplomatic breakthrough similar to the one that came about following 2001 Moscow Declaration. It would also help reduce Pyongyang’s reliance on Beijing.
The fact that Putin accommodates North Korea’s proposal to restart the six-party talks without conditions, while Xi demands the North clarify its intention to abandon its nuclear program, makes Kim all the more confident about the success of a summit with Russia. He also has high hopes for Victory, a joint project with $25 billion worth of investments that will modernize North Korea’s railways over the next 20 years, and North Korea’s participation in development projects promoted by Russia.
Unfortunately, however, Moscow is not in a position to be giving any concessions to North Korea right now. When it comes to the issue of restarting the six-party talks, other participants in the discussion - the United States, China, Japan and South Korea - demand, in unison, that the North make clear its position on denuclearization prior to a meeting. Even if Russia raises its voice in support of North Korea, there is only a slim chance that Russia’s request will be heard.
Regarding the UN human rights resolution on North Korea - which will pass the UN General Assembly to be adopted on the agenda of the UN Security Council - it is self-evident that Moscow will not be of assistance to Pyongyang considering that countries in the EU are among the 60 co-sponsors of the resolution.
The joint projects with Russia will certainly help to reduce North Korea’s economic reliance on China in the long run. However, Russia cannot become North Korea’s economic patron or the largest trading partner in place of China. This is clear from the fact that Russia and North Korea aim to achieve a trade volume of $1 billion by 2020, which is less than one-sixth of the $6.6 billion achieved by China and North Korea in 2013.
Moreover, the Russian economy is in crisis now. It suffers from a trifecta of difficulties - plummeting oil prices, the dwindling value of the ruble and sanctions from Western countries. International oil prices dropped to $70 per barrel from $110, and the value of the ruble dropped 40 percent. Russia is on the verge of a financial crisis.
In North Korea, there are 22 times more underground natural resources than in the South. According to a 2012 survey, North Korea has a total of $9.7 trillion worth of underground minerals, but its ability to develop them is limited. At the moment, most mining projects are carried out by Chinese companies.
Victory is a project that aims to sell the rights to develop these underground resources to Russian businesses so that the North can modernize its railways with the takeaway from the sale. North Korea is, in fact, inducing Russia to participate in the development of resources with China.
Since the reign of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, Pyongyang has used Russia as a means to keep China in check. Kim Jong-un, who is fond of imitating his grandfather, plans to unfold equidistant diplomacy between China and Russia, which Kim Il Sung resorted to in the 1970s. Before playing this diplomatic game, however, he would do well to remember that he must carefully walk that tightrope. Otherwise, he could fall and suffer serious injury.
When China demands that the North clarify its intention to denuclearize, it really means that Beijing has a strong interest in denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. If the North pushes ahead with its nuclear program against China’s wishes, Beijing would be obliged to halt its grain and oil supplies to the North.
Kim Jong-un should abandon this futile illusion of a summit with Putin. Instead, he should take Beijing’s advice and clarify North Korea’s will for denuclearization before talks and promote a meeting with Xi. The North should also mend fences with other participants in the six-party talks to provide a foundation for the establishment of a new era.
On the basis of a stable foundation consolidated by friendly relations with neighboring countries, Kim Jong-un will be able to improve the living standards of his people and promote human rights. Then, North Korea will no longer suffer international isolation and be able to seek economic independence.
*The author is a former visiting professor of communications at Sejong University.
by Park Sung-soo