When China’s clout wanes, Russia’s waxes

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When China’s clout wanes, Russia’s waxes


Kim Jong-un

Every other Monday, Ko Soo-suk, a North Korea expert at the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Center, provides an in-depth look at one of the most reclusive nations on the planet. The analyses are based on the senior journalist’s two decades of reporting on North Korea. -Ed.

Russia is North Korea’s second most important ally, though their bond has been overshadowed by Pyongyang’s “blood alliance” with Beijing. China accounted for 92.5 percent of North Korea’s trade in 2016, while Russia made up 1.2 percent, according to the latest report on North Korean trade by South Korea’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, significantly lower but still the second largest.

Significantly, Russia’s trade with the North is growing. With Washington pressuring Beijing to do more to rein in Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, and China very cautiously taking steps to follow through, North Korea finds itself relying more on Russia.


Vladimir Putin

According to data from Russia’s customs authority, the country’s trade with North Korea in the first three months of this year was around $32 million, up 186 percent from the $17 million registered in the same period last year.

The North Korea-flagged vessel Mangyongbong, which is operated by a Russian company, sails six times a month between the North Korean city of Rajin and Russia’s Vladivostok, carrying some 200 passengers and 1,000 tons of freight on each ride.

While announcing the vessel’s first sailing in May, North Korea stated through its official newspaper Rodong Sinmun that the “international tourist liner will make a positive contribution to developing marine transport and economic cooperation and tourism between the two countries.”

The North’s love-hate relationship with Beijing was probably best reflected in a commentary from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) last February, when it lambasted China for “dancing to the tune” of the United States and halting North Korean coal imports.

The agency didn’t directly mention China by name. A “neighboring country” was siding with North Korea’s enemies to topple its social system, the KCNA report read.

“This country, styling itself a big power, is dancing to the tune of the U.S. while defending its mean behavior with such excuses that it was meant not to have a negative impact on the living of the people in the DPRK, but to check its nuclear program,” the KCNA explained in English, referring to North Korea by the acronym of its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Russia and North Korea grew more chummy in 2014 when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a compact with Pyongyang that wrote off 90 percent of the regime’s $11 billion debt and reinvested the remaining 10 percent in North Korean energy, education and medical projects. Russia’s Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak said Moscow deemed itself a “donor” to Pyongyang.

The deal followed years of fruitless negotiations, mainly due to big differences in each country’s calculation of the debt. North Korea’s estimate of the debt, settled on right after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was nearly one 5,000th of Russia’s calculation.

Putin had a broader perspective about relations with the North and wanted to move on. Improved bilateral economic cooperation would allow him to strengthen Russia’s grip over East Asia.

The two countries couldn’t be any closer than in the realm of nuclear weapons development. Moscow supported core parts of its technology and gave equipment to North Korea. From 1956 to 1990, it trained some 250 North Korean researchers at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, a town 110 kilometers (68 miles) north of the Russian capital. The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea’s key nuclear facility, was modeled after Russia’s Krasnoyarsk-26.

With U.S. President Donald Trump now developing some sort of a bromance with Putin, while shifting away from China’s Xi Jinping, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un might have a better chance trying to get his message across to Trump through Putin, rather than Xi.

BY KO SOO-SUK, LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]
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