Since Vladimir Putin’s first term in office as president in 2000, Moscow has increased Russia’s international influence and prestige. One of the ways it has done this is by balancing both countries on the Korean Peninsula.
The Putin administration acknowledged that rebuilding ties with Pyongyang, while preserving good relations with Seoul, would again make Russia a player to be reckoned with in Northeast Asia.
Concerning Russia’s relationship with the DPRK, Russia became the founding member of the Six Party Talks in 2003. Recognizing the DPRK’s development of nuclear and ballistic missiles, Russia supported the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions constraining DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile program. However, the Ukraine crisis has worsened Russia’s relationship with the US, which in turn has intensified Russian-DPRK’s relations.
On the economic level, there have been a number of significant developments. Both Russia and the DPRK reached a series of agreements on many sectors. The issue of DPRK’s debt to Russia (inherited from the Soviet era), for instance, was finally settled in May 2014, with Russia agreeing to write off 90 percent of the 11-billion-US-dollar debt.
As for the Russia-ROK relationship, both sides have reached a mutual understanding that their two economies are complementary, with the ROK offering economic investment and advanced technology, and Russia providing natural resources and raw materials.
President Moon Jae-in has adopted a new northern policy targeted at cooperation with Russia. He joined the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok last September and stressed his “Nine Bridges” program, referencing areas the ROK and Russia can focus on for immediate development: gas, rail, seaports, electricity, Arctic shipping, shipbuilding, job creation, agriculture, and fisheries.
From Moon’s perspective, creating sound commercial links between the ROK and Russia will also benefit the DPRK, which could drive the DPRK to join the international community with renewed confidence. Moreover, the rail blueprint could connect the ROK with the greater Eurasian landmass. Russia is also happy to see these things happen.
There is no doubt that Russia continues to attach a high priority to maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula as well as its denuclearization. That is why they have made significant contributions to international efforts to constrain DPRK’s ambition on the nuclear issue, but also maintained the political and economic leverage it wields with the two Koreas.
From an American view, even though Russia’s and the US’s interests on the Korean affairs are not identical, they overlap enough to warrant their cooperation. As the former State Department representative for the DPRK policy Sung Kim put it in January 2015, “alignment (of the US and Russia) on the core goal of denuclearization remains as strong as ever.”
However, many Americans believe that the cooperation between Russia and the United States on the Korean Peninsula issues will be directly linked to the general condition of Russian-US relations. In other words, if the bilateral relationship worsens, Russia would be willing to obstruct US policies toward both the ROK and the DPRK.
Obviously, Russia acts as an independent player who is willing to cooperate with China, US, ROK as long as their goals align with those of Russia. Also as a pragmatic player in the game of realpolitik, Russia has been keeping a balanced policy toward the two Koreas, hoping to benefit from either one or maybe even both.