Secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, Choe Ryong Hae, led the North Korean delegation, which also included economic, diplomatic and military personnel. The delegates visited Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Moscow. The delegates met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and presented him with a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The two sides also revisited the possibility of linking Russian natural gas pipelines to and through North Korea to South Korea.
The meeting comes as Moscow seeks to expand economic activity in North Korea, as well as improving sea and land corridors between Russia's far east and South Korea. Russia has invested in the development of port facilities in North Korea's northeast Rason Special Economic Zone and updated rail lines running into North Korea. Moscow is also about to carry out a trial shipment of Russian coal from Rason to South Korea — part of a pilot program envisioned to bring Russian coal and other goods through North Korea to South Korea via rail.
Talk of connecting South Korea to continental Asia through North Korean pipelines and rail links is nothing new. Proposals and periodic discussions — and even occasional construction — have been underway since South Korea and Russia established formal diplomatic relations in 1991 and even before then, amid Seoul's Nordpolitik phase in the late 1980s. Such linkages are easier discussed than brought to fruition. Still, changes in the region are incentivizing the three countries to overcome some of the challenges and make concrete progress.
Russia Looking East
Russia's interest in expanding its relations and economic activity in the Pacific grew steadily amid Europe's economic slump. Additionally, the crisis in Ukraine intensified Russia's desire to look east, accelerating a long-languishing energy deal with China and encouraging expanded interactions with Japan and South Korea. Russia's diplomatic initiatives with Japan to at least partially resolve decades-long island disputes and craft energy and investment deals stalled because of Tokyo's participation in Western sanctions against Russia. Still, Moscow continues to work with the Japanese government in advance of sanctions easing. Moscow needs Japan to buy natural gas to ease its dependence on Chinese buyers in the east. It also wants to use energy ties with Japan and South Korea to complicate the U.S. alliance structure in the Pacific.
In the two Koreas, Russia sees an opportunity to replace Beijing as the main interlocutor for North Korea — a role that Beijing has in the past used to gain political leverage in dealing with countries involved in North Korean nuclear talks — and to further integrate Russia into the Pacific theater. South Korea's economy may not come near that of China or Japan, but it is still one of the top 15 in the world. Furthermore, South Korea consumes a large amount of energy and other natural resources that Russia could supply. It is also a country with an advanced high-tech industry that Russia would like to tap. Rather than looking at the two Koreas independently, Moscow sees the benefit of working with both simultaneously, positioning Russia as the central point in inter-Korean dialogue and providing greater incentive for South Korea to work with Russia on regional transportation and trade corridors.
With this in mind, Russia's relations with North Korea are shaping up in a very different manner than China's relations with the country. Beijing underwrites the North Korean government and demands access to North Korean minerals and natural resources in return. Moscow, on the other hand, is offering more investment in North Korean infrastructure rather than solely seeking access to North Korean commodities and cheap labor.
The Pacific Perspective
For South Korea, this is a welcome change. Estimates of any future reunification run in the $500 billion range, with most of the cost stemming from North Korea's extremely poor infrastructure. If Russia were willing to begin reconstruction well before reunification, it would ease the financial and physical burdens of the process. Tying North Korea into transit corridors for oil, natural gas, raw materials and finished products holds risk for South Korea, which could see such lines closed off. However, it also creates incentives for North Korea to cooperate for profit, and Russia can serve as a guarantor of sorts to keep the lines open.
For North Korea, Russia's newfound interest could not come at a better time. Pyongyang's relations with Beijing have been strained since before the death of Kim Jong Il and have worsened under Kim Jong Un. North Korean leaders are intent on asserting their interests and finding ways to relieve their excessive economic dependence on China. North Korea has opened dialogue with Japan, is working with Russia and has embarked on a global diplomatic offensive to try and break free from the constraints imposed by its relationships with China and the United States. During the Cold War, Pyongyang was adept at playing Soviet and Chinese interests off of one another, and it is in part returning to this mode. But North Korea also seeks concrete changes in its internal economic system and in its external economic relations. China offered little in the way of assistance that could lead to a stronger North Korean economy. Russian infrastructure development, however, does offer more of what Pyongyang seeks.
None of this is to suggest that Russia will be unchallenged in its Pacific push, nor that the two Koreas can easily overcome more than half a century of division. But the once seemingly stable balance of relations in Northeast Asia is shifting. Japan's re-emergence in the face of a rising China is forcing the two Koreas to reconcile. Russia's strategic interests require a turn east. Japan sees better relations with Russia and even North Korea a way to ease its security concerns in the north, allowing it to pay more attention to China's activities in the East and South China Seas — sea lanes critical to Japanese supply.
China's own economic problems have required the government to consolidate power and exploit nationalist sentiments to maintain central authority as the social impact of economic rebalancing begins to take hold. The U.S. "pivot" has raised intra-regional competition and positioning in the China-U.S. rivalry. In particular, Southeast Asia is positioned as one of the few regions likely to see robust economic growth and development over the next decade, increasing competition regionally for various trade deals and security alliances.
In this context, the North Korean delegation's visit to Russia is just a small event for a region in flux. Old alliances are being stressed and rekindled; new alliances are being forged and undermined, and big power competition is creating new opportunities and revived risks in the Pacific.