Russia has never disregarded the North Korean nuclear and missile issue nor its support for North Korea.
Russia will never relinquish its safety belt against the US forces stationed in South Korea and, above all, Kim Jong-Un’s possible military shield towards the USA and its allies in Southeast Asia. If anything, the issue lies in replacing this shield with an equally effective economic or strategic and conventional delimitation.
On August 15, 2018, Kim Jong-Un sent an important telegram for congratulating Vladimir Putin on the occasion of the 73rd anniversary of Korea’s liberation from the Japanese domination.
It should be recalled that the united Korean empire ended in 1910, but the Japanese-Korean Treaty of 1876 integrated the peninsula in the Meji Empire, the historical and cultural phase in which Japan acquired the Western technologies and cultures to expand its “co-prosperity area” throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
An area bound to naturally lap upon the US area of influence – at that time as now.
It is worth remembering, however, that Korea’s industrialization began precisely in its phase of independence from Japan, while the subordination to the Japanese Empire led not only to a massive exploitation of the Korean labour force for the Japanese purposes, but also to a radical cultural and psychological dispossession of the people in that peninsula and of their traditions.
There is no geopolitics without a geo-cultural analysis.
As Aristotle said, “Even God cannot change the past”- and the old 20th century balances of power still draw the limits of the possible strategies which can be implemented both in Korea and in the rest of maritime South Asia.
Currently the United States can also aspire to excessively expand its power to the myriad of Pacific islands, thus conquering them all to keep none, just to encircle Japan.
Or it can hold the security coordinates of the Straits of Malacca, in order to keep on controlling those areas of world trade.
However, let us revert to the telegram recently sent by Kim Jong-Un.
In the telegram he wished Russian President Vladimir Putin good luck with his plans for “building a powerful Russia” and recalled that “the peoples of the two countries struggled shoulder to shoulder against the common enemy in the arduous anti-Japanese war”.
This paves the way for renewed friendship between the Russian Federation and North Korea, which will “serve as driving force to continuously develop bilateral relations as required by a new era”.
In other words, Kim Jong-Un wants to renew the traditional ties with Russia to rebalance those with China – which are certainly equally important – without excluding them.
Thanks to the Western superficiality, North Korea has excellent relations with both Russia and China and it does not want to lose them or to create preferential relations with one country or the other.
In particular, the North Korean Leader does not intend to currently neglect the old and timeless Russian ally, which is now redesigning and reshaping the Greater Middle East – the terrestrial defensive outpost of his North Korea and, in any case, a guarantee for his land security to the North and to the West.
An important security for North Korea, at least as much as the maritime one that mainly pertains to its alliance with China.
In the almost immediate reply to the North Korean leader, Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin wrote he was ready to meet with him in the near future in Moscow.
In recent years many promises have been made to organize a Summit between Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin, but they have never come true.
It is mainly the fault of the unpredictable adjustment of equilibria in the Pacific after 2006, the year of North Korea’s military and official nuclearization.
There were many secret meetings, especially in the acute phases of the 2017 missile crisis, and sometimes simultaneously with President Trump’s visits to Moscow.
Most likely, in these very confidential meetings, the discussion was also focused on the possibility of moving significant parts of the Russian Armed Forces on the border with North Korea.
At that time, the significance of these historical operations of the Russian Armed Forces in the Primorsky area was evident: to show to the United States that the Russian Federation did not accept any threat to North Korea and that, in any case, Russia would significantly defend the North Korean territory from a joint US-South Korean action.
It was quite obvious: even today neither the Russian Federation nor the People’s Republic of China are interested in having a country linked only to the USA, but defeated or weak,on its borders.
Moreover, while defending North Korea, Russia can currently play the role of broker and mediator between the two Koreas and control the strategic triangle between the two post-Cold War nations of the Korean peninsula with Japan.
Another centre of primary strategic interest of the Russian Federation.
In fact, in January 2017 Putin stated that Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear-missile program was “a threat to security in North-East Asia”, but he also asked South Korea to reject the anti-missile structure THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) offered to it by the United States.
Weakening of the entire peninsula and maintenance of North Korea’s margin of attack. This is the simple, but lucid Russian strategic formula.
Moreover, since the very beginning, Russia has accepted the UN sanctions against North Korea under evident suspicion and some Russian companies have been hit just because they have not avoided trading “sensitive” goods and services with North Korea.
It is even more obvious that currently Russia does not want a North Korean State, on its land border of only eleven miles, that can accumulate potentials capable of threatening the terrestrial and Asian area to the Middle East with threats tous azimuts.
Or a State that can create – in an extremely important area for Russia – a sequence of regional crises drawing the attention of the major global strategic actors.
The strategy is to make the Korean peninsula a peripheral area and weakening its global irritant thorns.
This is the same policy of China in North Korea. In the future, however, China will also try to integrate North Korea into its Central Asian project to control the Turkmen jihad and into its policy of economic and military expansion to the Pacific region.
Moreover, it cannot be ruled out that China does not want a military contribution from North Korea in its protection of the Belt and Road Initiative to the South.
Furthermore Russia has always had a strong strategic interest in the whole Asian maritime region, in general, and in the Southern one, in particular.
In fact, Putin has always maintained that Russia’s active policy vis-à-vis the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) – the 21 economies and the Korean peninsula – is essential for all the Asian projects of the Russian Federation.
Projects that, as can be easily understood, tend to offset and replace the sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries.
Currently Russia has these primary interests in the Asian-Pacific region: to develop the Siberian area well and quickly; to integrate the Asian region into its system of trade relations with the old Asian-Southern countries of the former USSR; to increase the Russian presence in the Asian economies, especially in medium and high-tech goods, with a view to avoiding the penetration of others into those markets and finally avoiding the jihadist radicalization of internal conflicts, especially in the framework of the confrontation between the United States and China.
Hence with these moves, which also include the Russian economic policy vis-à-vis North Korea, the Russian Federation stands as a necessary “third power” throughout the Asian-Pacific region.
Here the preferential relationship with North Korea is essential.
Therefore it is not strange that, for the next Summit between Putin and Kim Jong-Un, the possibility was considered of the next Eastern Economic Forum scheduled in Vladivostok in September.
This would have been the occasion for a series of meetings also with the Chinese and Japanese leaders, but it is exactly in September that Kim Jong-Un shall follow all the preparatory work for the 70th anniversary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Indeed, Russia wants to meet Kim Jong-Un alone. Currently it has no interest in a friendly internationalization of the North-Korean issue.
The 70th anniversary is a date that will mark a new condition for North Korea – and this is the meaning that Kim Jong-Un wants to give to the celebrations. It is a condition of reaffirmation of the regime’s solitary power and of new and positive openness to the world.
Furthermore the North Korean leader wants to well prepare the bilateral meeting with Putin that will mean, above all, that North Korea does not depend on China’s interests only. Hence a tactical delay is better.
In fact, as he has already been doing for some time, Kim Jong-Un wants to implement an opportunistic policy, but without really betraying any of the two Asian and Eurasian players.
In particular, North Korea wants a share of national strategic autonomy in the future context of its admission to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Hence, apart from India which, together with Pakistan, has recently followed the works of what China finds it difficult to define as the “NATO of the East”, SCO will have a vertical strategic axis between the Indian Ocean and South East Asia to the Pacific region. And it will certainly depend on North Korea’s future military policy.
This vertical axis, however, will be the whole Korea – with the autonomous North Korea which, in Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s designs, will be partially integrated into the SCO together with South Korea.
At least Putin alone will grant to North Korea as much geopolitical autonomy as it will be necessary to the Russian Federation in order to: a) avoid any regional hegemony of the United States and its primary allies in the region; b) preserve the security of the its sea borders with North Korea; c) avoid giving a clear field to China.
China has mainly an oceanic interest in Kim Jong-Un’s Korea.
Russia, however, possibly want to create a strategic continuum between its Central Asian terrestrial region, which has its stronghold in the new Syria, and the Vietnamese coasts. Like the Krak of the Knights which, in the Syrian desert was an offensive rather than a defensive castle, as Lawrence of Arabia told us, currently Assad’ Syria is the Western bulwark of every “colour revolution” or jihad that can penetrate the post-Soviet Central Asia or the maritime corridor leading this area to the North-West borders of North Korea.
There is also the possibility – theorized by some analysts, especially from the North American school – that Vladimir Putin wants to oppose the US peripheral expansion everywhere, especially in Southeast Asia, where the US strategic defeat of the twentieth century began, so as to eventually replace the United States as a global player.
And currently the axis mundi is in Asia, not in Europe or in other parts of the West.
We are not sure that Vladimir Vladimirovic Putin really wants to create a US global dissymmetry with respect to the China-Russia’s axis.
If this happens, it shall only be USA’s fault.
The long-term diverging interests between Russia and China are still there – and precisely in a region that closely affects the Asian geopolitical choices vis-à-vis North Korea, namely Russia’s terrestrial Far East and Siberia.
There is the economic contrast – inevitable in the future – between the Eurasian Economic Union, organized by Russia in 2014 between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and, currently, also Kyrgyzstan, and the Chinese network of the Belt and Road Initiative. This is another problem that Kim Jong-Un shall resolve, at least apparently, once ceased the US (and Japanese) pressure on North Korea.
With a credible project, the United States could open part of its markets to North Korean products and create –just in the territory of North Korea – a network of Foreign Direct Investments that would shield the fledgling industry from Chinese or Russian pressures.
However, this is probably a vain hope.
Moreover Chinese investment in the Russian Far East is not as much as that which had been predicted and hoped for by Russia: China has no particular interest in Russia’s Arctic North and it is rather interested in the central axis of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Furthermore, if China continues to invest in the Arctic infrastructure, together with Russia, this will only be in view of a de facto or de jure transfer of the Russian sovereignty over the North Pole areas in which currently both countries work together.
Also this balance between China and Russia is bound to greatly influence North Korea’s external political developments.
Hence, in terms of North Korea’s nuclear power, as early as 2006 – the year of the first true North Korean test -it was China that integrated North Korea into its Asian strategic project and proposed a bilateral dialogue with the United States for the solution of the North Korean issue.
This has de facto excluded the Russian Federation from the Korean games.
Russia reacted almost immediately with its support to the sanctions against North Korea within the UN Security Council, thus creating an equal-footing balance with the United States on the issue.
An opportunity that the United States did not grasp at the right time.
Sanctions, however, have not really been accepted by the Russian economic system: North Korean coal exports to Russia continue; many Asian workers have long been migrating to Russian factories near the border; the new railway networks, which should shortly connect Russia with North Korea and always end up in South Korea, are being called into question.
Currently trade between Russia and North Korea is worth approximately 110 million US dollars a year.
Moreover, despite the letter and the spirit of the UN sanctions, Russia has not repatriated the thousands of North Korean workers it still hosts.
Furthermore, Russia still organizes many North Korean international financial and trade relations, thus supporting the operations for circumventing sanctions.
The railway line between Russia and the North Korean port of Razon is essential, but currently – also in tacit competition with China – it is the Russian Federation that provides North Korea with some Internet networks.
Incidentally, it would be good if the UN sanction mechanism – which, as some UN sources maintain, is scarcely transparent and often irrational – were radically revised: it keeps the US financial hegemony well beyond its rational limits, with dangers also for America; it unbalances financial markets that should be – at least officially – “free” and finally creates the opportunity, for the country on which sanctions are applied, to move directly to the adverse camp.
What would have happened to Italy if the sanctions of the League of Nations following the conquest of Abyssinia had not found in Nazi Germany the only, but certainly very interested adversary?
Nevertheless, in all likelihood, the turning point of the new relationship between Russia and North Korea will be the new pipeline that is supposed to transfer natural gas from the Russian Federation to both Koreas.
We will never understand the Russian strategic logic if we think it will accept the partition of the Korean peninsula as a fait accompli: Russia always thinks of both Koreas. And it would be crazy not to do so.
In the North, Russia operates to make North Korea “loyal” to the Russian strategic project while, in the South, it endeavors to curb the US and Japanese influence as much as possible.
Furthermore, there will soon be concrete signs of the Russian interest in the large group of industries in Kaesong, as well as the possible penetration of the Russian economy into the future North Korean automotive and mechanical industries, and finally the possible creation of an ad hoc Bank for the globalization of the Korean economy to the East and eventually to Europe.
Along the Southern flank of the Russian geo-economic security which is parallel to, but different from the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.
North Korea’s future geopolitical choice will be between the Chinese Belt and Road lines and those provided by the Russian maritime and terrestrial continuity on its borders.