For some time now, Russia has been quietly helping boost economic support for North Korea to try to stymie any kind of a push by the U.S. to dethrone Kim Jong-un. Moscow is gravely concerned that the President of the United States has been behaving increasingly erratically as of late and fear is growing every day that he will take action that will cause the situation with the U.S. and North Korea to erupt into chaos. On top of that, Russia is reportedly also worried that if Kim Jong-un is indeed ousted, his fall would sap its regional clout and allow U.S. troops to deploy on Russia’s eastern border.
Though Moscow has long maintained its desire to try to improve tensions between Russia and the United States, in hopes of gaining relief from Western sanctions over Ukraine, there has remained strong opposition in Russia to what it sees as Washington’s meddling in the affairs of other countries.
Russia is already with the build-up of American-led NATO forces on its western borders in Europe and worries the same may soon happen on its Asian flank, something that Russia wants no part of. Yet while Russia has an interest in protecting North Korea, which started life as a Soviet satellite state, it is not willing to look the other way when Pyongyang has engaged in missile testing. Russia willingly backed tougher United Nations sanctions against North Korea over those nuclear tests, which were conducted last month.
However, by doing that, Moscow is also playing a potentially disastrous double game, by quietly offering North Korea assistance to help protect it from U.S.-led efforts that could eventually isolate it economically.
A Russian company began routing North Korean internet traffic this month, giving Pyongyang a second connection with the outside world besides China. Bilateral trade more than doubled to $31.4 million in the first quarter of 2017, due mainly to what Moscow claimed was higher oil product exports.
On top of that, no less than eight North Korean ships that left Russia with fuel cargoes this year have returned home despite officially declaring other destinations. This is what U.S. officials believe is a ploy often used to undermine sanctions against Pyongyang.
And Russia, which shares a short land border with North Korea, has also put up resistance against U.S.-led efforts to turn back tens of thousands of North Korean workers whose remittances help keep the country’s uncompromising leadership afloat.
Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, spoke to Reuters regarding Russia’s concern that the U.S. wants to see a regime change in North Korea.
“The Kremlin really believes the North Korean leadership should get additional assurances and confidence that the United States is not in the regime change business. The prospect of regime change is a serious concern. The Kremlin understands that Trump is unpredictable. They felt more secure with Barack Obama that he would not take any action that would explode the situation, but with Trump they don’t know.”
Trump, who mocks North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a “rocket man” on a suicide mission, told the United Nations General Assembly last month he would “totally destroy” the country if necessary. He has also said Kim Jong-un and his foreign minister “won’t be around much longer” if they made good on a threat to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.
Anton Morozov, a member of the Russian Lower House of Parliament’s International Affairs Committee, and two other Russian lawmakers visited Pyongyang last week and came back with what, to him, was evidence that North Korea has the technology in place to have one of their missiles reach the U.S.
“They are preparing for new tests of a long-range missile. They even gave us mathematical calculations that they believe prove that their missile can hit the west coast of the United States.”
To be sure, Moscow’s economic ties to Pyongyang still pale in comparison to those of neighboring Beijing. However, Russia does remain a more powerful player in the unfolding nuclear crisis. But while Beijing is cutting back trade as it toughens its line on its neighbor’s ballistic missile and nuclear program, Russia has been increasing its support.
People familiar with elements of Kremlin thinking say that is because Russian support exists only because Russia flatly opposes regime change in North Korea. Russian politicians have repeatedly accused the United States of plotting so-called color revolutions across the former Soviet Union and any U.S. talk of unseating any leader for whatever reason is considered politically toxic in Moscow.
With Russia scheduled to hold a Presidential election in March, politicians are again starting to feel anxious about any meddling that may come from the Western hemisphere. In 2011, President Vladimir Putin accused then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of trying to stir up unrest in Russia and he has made clear that he wants the United States to leave Kim Jong-un alone, all while condemning Pyongyang for what he called provocative nuclear tests. Putin told a forum last month in the eastern Russian port of Vladivostok that he understood North Korea’s security concerns about the United States and South Korea, using facts to state his case.
“Vladivostok, a strategic port city of 600,000 people and headquarters to Russia’s Pacific Fleet, is only about 100 km (60 miles) from Russia’s border with North Korea. Russia would be fiercely opposed to any U.S. forces deploying nearby in a reunited Korea.”
“The North Koreans know exactly how the situation developed in Iraq,” Putin told the economic forum, implying what a lot of people believe, that Washington had used the false pretext that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction to destroy the country and its leadership.
“They know all that and see the possession of nuclear weapons and missile technology as their only form of self-defense. Do you think they’re going to give that up?”
Analysts believe Russia’s view is that North Korea’s transformation into a nuclear state, though far from complete, is permanent and irreversible and the best the West can hope for is for Pyongyang to freeze elements of its nuclear regime.
Kortunov said he did not think the Kremlin’s defense of Kim Jong-un was based on any personal affection or support for North Korea’s leadership, likening Moscow’s pragmatic backing to that it has given Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad. He said Moscow knows it would lose regional leverage if Kim Jong-un fell, much as its Middle East influence was threatened when militants looked like they might overthrow Assad in 2015.
So, in a sense, by looking out for North Korea, Russia is looking out for itself.
“It’s a very delicate balancing act,” said Kortunov. “On the one hand, Russia doesn’t want to deviate from the line of its partners and mostly from China’s position on North Korea which is getting tougher. But on the other hand, politicians in Moscow understand that the current situation and level of interaction between Moscow and Pyongyang puts Russia in a league of its own compared to China.”
If the United States were to remove Kim Jong-un by force, Kortunov believes Russia could face a refugee and humanitarian crisis on its border. Even worse, he says, the weapons and technology Pyongyang is developing could fall into even more dangerous non-state hands.
[Featured Image by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images]