Russia has strategically cozied up to North Korea as Pyongyang’s decades-long friendship with China stands on thin ice amid increasing pressure from the U.S. over the North’s nuclear weapons program. Russia wants to fill China’s shoes of being the North’s biggest political and economic ally, according to Stratfor. While Beijing may not be willing to give up its decades-long friendship with Pyongyang – despite the strained ties amid the global uproar towards the North’s nuclear weapons program – Moscow aims to capitalize on the rare and unique falling out between China and North Korea.
The volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula has prompted Moscow to get involved in the reignited crisis directly. Stratfor states that Moscow “has increased its focus on the Korean Peninsula, ready to forge stronger ties with its isolated neighbor.” While Russia and North Korea have previously sought closer ties on the basis of their mutual isolation from the West, the two pariah states could soon enjoy an even closer cooperation in the wake of the public spat between the U.S. and North Korea over the latter’s planned sixth nuclear weapons test.
Russia is “strengthening ties to North Korea” amid China-North spat
“Russia (has) begun quietly laying the groundwork that would strengthen its ties to North Korea,” the Stratfor report reads. It adds that Beijing is “considering increasing pressure on North Korea” to scale back its massive nuclear weapons program that grabbed global headlines last month. Reports had surfaced of a planned sixth nuclear weapons test to celebrate the birthday of the late grandfather of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Il Sung.
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The worrying reports have prompted an immediate response in the U.S. The Trump administration began increasing pressure on China – by far North Korea’s closest political and economic ally – to convince Kim Jong Un to dial back his nation’s nuclear weapons program.
As Beijing is considering putting pressure on Pyongyang to halt its nukes program, “Russia stands ready to take advantage of the conflict,” the analysis points out.
Russia looking to fill China’s shoes on the Korean Peninsula
Although North Korea and China have been particularly close in past decades, Beijing has never shied away from criticizing its political and economic partner’s nuclear weapons tests. Those tests have been sending shock waves around the world since the first one in 2003. But since April, tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang have been so thick they could be cut with a knife.
As North Korea has been puzzled over whose side China is on in the North-U.S. crisis, ties between them have taken major hits. In recent weeks, state-run media outlets in Beijing and Pyongyang have exchanged hostile rhetoric, with U.S. President Trump seemingly fueling the North-China conflict by praising Chinese President Xi Jinping for cooperating with Washington’s efforts to put an end to the North’s nuclear weapons program.
China even threatened to cut off fuel exports to North Korea, whose resources greatly rely on exports from China, if Pyongyang carries out its sixth nuclear weapons test. Russia, meanwhile, “hinted it could replace at least some of that supply,” clearly signaling its growing role on the Korean Peninsula, according to Stratfor.
History of warm ties between Russia and the North
Russia and North Korea have previously attempted to amend their once-very warm ties, but “there is little doubt that Russia is making sincere attempts at building a partnership with North Korea” during the public spat between China and the North, Russia-Korea analyst Anthony Rinna wrote in his recent report published by the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham.
“The idea that Russia is once again superseding China as North Korea’s major international patron bodes well when viewed through the prism of North Korea’s Cold War-era tactics of playing China and the USSR off of each other,” Rinna added, hinting at the decades-long warm ties between the Russians and North Koreans after World War II.
After defeating the occupying Japanese empire in 1945, the U.S. occupied the southern part of the Korean Peninsula (today’s South Korea), while the USSR (today’s Russia) occupied the northern part (today’s North Korea). Washington and Moscow sponsored respective governments in the southern and northern parts of the peninsula, with conflicting ideologies and grave differences in their political views, which served as a spark that eventually grew into the massive fire of the Korean War in the early 1950s.
While Chinese troops directly participated in the war and fought against the South Koreans, it was the USSR that strengthened North Korea since the Day 1 of its existence. North-Russia ties had been strong for nearly half a century before the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Both political and economic ties between Moscow and Pyongyang had stalled for years, and only recently, Russia has again started reaching out to North Korea to establish itself as a major player on the Korean Peninsula and the Asian-Pacific region.
China has no plans to push North Korea toward Russia or the U.S.
Long before Russia hinted that it would replace some of China’s fuel supplies to North Korea if Beijing cuts the exports, Moscow sought closer cooperation with Pyongyang, raising eyebrows in China in the process. In 2014, sour ties between Russia and North Korea saw the light at the end of the tunnel when Russia wrote off 90% of North’s massive $11 billion debt from the Soviet era.
But not only that. This past Monday, Russia and North Korea opened a new ferry service that is set to carry up to 1,000 tons of cargo six times a month. Last month during a heated exchange between Washington and Pyongyang – Russia’s military equipment was spotted being moved to its border with North Korea, triggering a furious response in the West and China.
While Moscow was quick to downplay the reports, claiming it was transporting its military hardware as part of pre-planned military drills, the recently reignited warmth in Russia-North ties helps Russia “quietly lay the groundwork that would strengthen its ties to North Korea,” according to Stratfor. However, it would be ignorant to view China’s willingness to cooperate with the Trump administration on halting North Korea’s nuclear program as its willingness to abandon its long-time ally and neighbor.
It’s unlikely that Beijing, which strongly opposes U.S. military presence and its growing influence on the Korean Peninsula and regional waters where China makes ambitious territorial claims, has plans or intentions to push North Korea toward either Russia or the U.S.