Pyongyang will follow Moscow?

In the Yeltsin era, North Koreans were not welcome guests at the Kremlin. After the break-up of the Soviet empire, Moscow pressed for debt repayment and started to suggest that the North Korean nuclear programme needed to be put under control. But times changed, along with the Kremlin administration.

As of now, Moscow forgave 90 percent of North Korea’s soviet era debt, a figure totalling more than $10 billion! It’s particularly impressive taking in account the struggling of the Russian economy!

As of now, Vladimir Putin had a different idea for arranging relations with the North Korean regime. Shortly after assuming the office of president he became the first “Western” leader to pay an official visit in Pyongyang. Mutual cooperation flourished. The amount of trade between the two states is now approaching the levels comparable to Soviet times.

North Korean students in Russia (source: DPRK embassy in Moscow)
North Korean students in Russia (source: DPRK embassy in Moscow)

The figures are compelling: before the collapse of the Soviet state, trade amounted to about one billion dollars, in the early Yeltsin era it fell to just 70 million and after 2000 it soared again and now reaches 800 million dollars. The primary Russian export commodity is oil, providing energy security for North Korea (65% of exports to North Korea), and steel products (10%).

Russia has become a window to the modern world for North Korea, maintaining regular relations with Pyongyang and having an impact, albeit modest, on North Korean elites. Unfortunately, the role of Moscow on the Peninsula is very often ignored and underestimated. Pyongyang is aware that it needs Russia more than Russia needs North Korea.

A few months ago a young leader with no direct links to Moscow assumed power in North Korea. He did not study in Russia, unlike some other important representatives of North Korean elites (such as Jang Sung-thaek and Kim Kyung-hee). Kim Jong-un was not born in Russia (unlike his father and the former ruler Kim Jong-il), he does not speak Russian (unlike his brother Kim Jong-nam), he had not been a Soviet agent (unlike his grandfather Kim Il-sung, founder of North Korea). And therefore Kim Jong-un will treat Russia purely instrumentally rather than sentimentally like his father, who liked to travel there.

The North Korean establishment is aware that it must rely on the support of the Russian Federation, for Pyongyang is on the brink of bankruptcy: economic aid is a factor making the North Koreans want to deepen their cooperation with Russia. In contrast to the new leader Kim Jong-un, the elites also have sentimental connections with Russia. Choe Ryong-hae, Jang Jong-nam, Hyon Yong-chol: all of them were partially educated with Russian lecturers.

The North Korean leadership aware of the importance of Russia and personally look after the interests of Russian companies in North Korea. The politicians who are currently in charge of the North Korean economy (Ri Ryong-nam, Pak Sol-chu and Ri Su-yong) frequently visit Russia and try to persuade the Russian business circles to invest in the north of the Korean Peninsula. The army commanders are also strongly attached to the Russians: the top echelons of the Korean People’s Army earned their education in the country of the Northern neighbour. We could name here Kim Jong-chun (who studied at the Frunze Military Academy in Russia) or O Kuk-ryol, a personal adviser to Kim Jong Un who studied in the Soviet Union and speaks fluent Russian. We must also remember that Russian specialists teach at North Korean military academies.

Rather terrifyingly, the cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang is not limited to economic or military contacts. About ten thousand North Koreans, arbitrarily selected by the government, work in Russian labour camps as part of debt repayment. The camps are currently located in the Russian Far East, where the Koreans work all year long. They are allowed only two days off annually.

Some of these topics will be probably discussed by Choe Ryong-hae, the special envoy of North Korea who will leave Pyongyang for Moscow within the next days. See below the KCNA report regarding the mission of the “special envoy of Kim Jong-un”

“Choe Ryong Hae, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau and secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, will visit the Russian Federation soon as a special envoy of Kim Jong Un, first chairman of the National Defence Commission of the DPRK.”

Taking in account this framework, who needs the other? Russia or North Korea? Maybe both of them?

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