North Korea is a thorn in the sides of both America and China. Continued attempts to further their nuclear and missile programs despite both countries introducing sanctions and pressure to stop have frustrated both Trump and Jinping. Both leaders have worked tirelessly together to subdue Pyongyang, North Korea’s largest capital city, to nearly no avail. But, Russia has been doing something interesting with North Korea.
Russia, too, has put pressure on the tiny northern peninsula, but there is evidence that Russia may not be as reliable as China. Despite the fact that Russian leaders have stated clearly that they, too, want North Korea to cease all development of nuclear or missile weapons, they have yet to place sanctions on the country or call it out directly.
A recent message to the United States even goes so far as to warn the American government of “dire consequences” if they take military action against Pyongyang.
While trade hasn’t necessarily picked up directly, traffic between Russia and North Korea certainly has. A ferry service only recently installed will increase transfer up to 200 passengers and a massive 1,000 tonnes of freight between the two countries, departing from Pyongyang and landing in Vladivostok.
This in and of itself is a bit unusual, given the tense relations between all three countries. What makes the ferry especially worrisome relates to what intelligence officers have discovered about Vladivostok in the past.
Massive oil tankers traveling between both ports carrying an unknown cargo — five of them, in fact — raised suspicion over the potential for covert trade using the ferry system. Add to this the fact that Russian transportation specialists visited North Korea at the beginning of the year to etch out a plan for increased rail transportation and it seems as if Russia is increasing connections between the two countries rather than reining them in.
If the increased rail transportation system does go forward, it would multiply access to valuable resources like coal, metal, and oils for North Korea, transporting them between Kashan and Rajin.
That’s raising questions about how effective sanctions from both the U.S. and China will ever be if North Korea can simply turn to Russia when they need help.
But convincing Russia to go along with the sanctions isn’t easy; the country is notoriously self-invested and difficult to sway on a national level. North Korea has continuously played Moscow and Beijing off of one another over the years, shifting towards whichever is more willing to provide resources and work with them as it sees fit. Russia is just the latest iteration of that action.
“North Korea does not care about China’s pressure or sanctions because there is Russia next door,” said Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at Australian National University.
The Australian professor clarified, “Pyongyang has been playing off Beijing and Moscow for half a century, letting them compete for the right to aid and influence North Korea.”
Vladivostok is home to one of the country’s largest North Korean expatriate communities — another sign of flexible borders between both countries over the last few decades. China, too, hosts a number of North Korean expats, but has reigned in immigration over the last few years.
Tense relations between Russia and the United States create an additional layer of problems for the U.N., who have been pushing all three countries towards further sanctions. If that happens, the United States would effectively lead the sanctions — and whether or not Russia will go along with an American-led initiative is questionable.
The situation is further muddied by the fact that Russia, and more specifically Moscow, has stated outright that relations with North Korea would directly benefit the country financially. Oxford University’s Samuel Ramini clarifies this, stating that Russia is “a loyal partner to anti-Western regimes facing international isolation and sanctions.”
“As Russia has close economic links with other countries at odds with the West, like Iran, Venezuela and Syria, this symbolic dimension of the Russia-North Korea relationship has strategic significance.”
The United States wants an embargo on oil sales to North Korea currently, but Russia seems to be flaunting that request openly. Russia is also solely responsible for providing jet fuel to the country after China ceased deliveries.
Whether or not Russia will actually push ahead with more trade is questionable. Even specialists from around the globe question the intelligence of increasing trade with Pyongyang. Foreign relations expert Andrei Lankov, who works for Seoul’s Kookmin University, commented on the potential with marked distaste.
“All trade with North Korea has to be subsidized. I do not see the Russian government spending its dwindling currency reserves to support the regime they despise and see as incurably ungrateful, and also prone to risky adventurism”.