Russian Speed Bump on the Road to Pyongyang

5 MINS READJun 13, 2000 | 05:00 GMT

Moscow announced June 9 that Russian President Vladimir Putin would pay a visit to Pyongyang at the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The visit, likely to take place just prior to Putin's participation in the G8 summit in Japan July 21-23, will be the first for a Russian - or Soviet - leader to North Korea. Through the visit, Russia is attempting to reinsert itself as a key player on the Korean Peninsula - and in East Asia. Russia's involvement provides Pyongyang an opportunity to return to its old game of playing Moscow against Beijing, threatening to further strain Sino-Russian relations and potentially undermine inter-Korean reconciliation.


On June 9, Moscow announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Pyongyang at the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Putin's visit will mark the first time a Russian - or Soviet - leader traveled to the North Korean capital. The announcement is a late attempt by Moscow to insert itself into the process of inter-Korean dialogue.

Russia is seeking to edge out China as the main supporter of North Korea, weakening Beijing's influence in East Asia and asserting its own. With the North Korean pawn, Moscow would benefit from increased political leverage with South Korea, Japan and the United States. Pyongyang, in turn, will capitalize on Russia's newfound desire for high-level contact, reviving its ability to play Beijing against Moscow - and potentially weakening the urgency of Pyongyang's renewed relations with Seoul.

Putin's visit amounts to a diplomatic coup for North Korea, as relations between the two countries have been strained for a decade. Pyongyang will likely interpret the visit as a sign of its political value to Russia; this is in contrast to North Korea's relations with China, characterized by Kim Jong Il's recent visit to Beijing. Putin was sure to one-up Jiang by visiting Pyongyang

Moscow's sudden interest in rebuilding relations with Pyongyang is motivated in large part by its relations with the United States and East Asia. With increased influence over North Korea, Russia can offer to guide or control Pyongyang in return for economic incentives and investments from Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.

Further, North Korea's missile program provides the rationale for U.S. plans to alter the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Moscow opposes. By regaining influence in Pyongyang, Moscow increases its bargaining position with the United States.

To accomplish these objectives, Moscow must limit Beijing's growing influence in Korean affairs. China has played a major role in bringing North and South Korea together for their summit. For Beijing, this weakens U.S. influence on the peninsula and in East Asia, offering China greater leverage in dealing with Taiwan.

However, competition between Moscow and Beijing has been growing steadily, with relations taking a noticeable downturn after Putin succeeded former President Boris Yeltsin.

Moscow's late attempt to rebuild its influence over North Korea leaves it at a disadvantage to Beijing. While China has maintained economic and political ties - however limited - Russia effectively abandoned North Korea after establishing diplomatic ties with the South in 1991. China is increasing food and material assistance to the North following Kim Jong Il's visit to Beijing and is fully supporting South Korea's economic expansions into the North.

For its part, Moscow inked a new friendship treaty with Pyongyang in February 2000, but avoided any promise of economic assistance. Since then, it has raised the idea of rebuilding former Soviet-built industries in the North with the assistance of Japanese capital.

More recently, Russia has emphasized a reinvigoration of the Tumen River international development program, which, combined with a planned Korean-Siberian rail link, would allow direct shipping of goods between Asia and Europe.

Ultimately Russia needs to prove that it has the economic and political ability to deliver greater benefit to North Korea than China can. The competition for Pyongyang's ear may well strain already unsteady relations between Moscow and Beijing. In disturbing the flow of inter-Korean negotiations, Russia threatens again to stir up North Korea, undermining potential economic support from South Korea, the United States or Japan.

Russia hopes to gain both increased leverage from its relationship with North Korea and the economic benefits of these programs. However, both the reconstruction of North Korean industries and the further development of the Tumen River are not solely in Russia's hands, but depend instead on Japanese and other international financial participation.

Russia's belated offer may already be affecting inter-Korean relations. North Korea's request to delay the summit meeting with South Korea followed meetings between Pyongyang's ambassador to Moscow and the Russian foreign minister.

As Moscow attempts to outbid Beijing in inter-Korean affairs, Pyongyang's dependence on Seoul will appear less urgent. North Korea will once again be able to play rival “sponsors” Russia and China off one another to its advantage. The rekindled competition for influence may also spur differences between pro-Beijing and pro-Moscow factions in Pyongyang, distracting from a unified policy in regards to Seoul. In the short term, it is South Korea that stands to lose.

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