In Brief

Where Does the Russia-North Korea Relationship Stand?

Russian President Putin reiterated the importance of denuclearization during last week’s summit, but did not provide visible sanctions relief for North Korean leader Kim. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un discussed denuclearization during their first-ever summit in Russia last week. Scott A. Snyder, CFR’s senior fellow for Korea studies, offers his analysis.  

What is the big takeaway from Kim’s summit with Putin?

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Kim desperately needed to replace the narrative of weakness after failing to make a widely expected deal with the United States at the Hanoi summit with a narrative of strength, both domestically and internationally. Last week’s summit with Putin allowed Kim to show stature internationally and discuss alternatives to the U.S.-proposed big deal on denuclearization. But he failed to win Russian support for weakening the international sanctions regime. For Putin, the summit provided an opportunity to emphasize Russia’s relevance in Korean peace and denuclearization negotiations, which have so far been dominated by the United States and South Korea.

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During the summit, Putin reiterated the importance of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, but he also backed North Korea’s advocacy of a phased process involving confidence-building measures with the United States. Putin provided no visible sanctions relief, despite bringing economic and energy ministers to discuss Russian and inter-Korean railway and energy projects.

This was Kim’s first summit with Putin. Why did it take so long?

The long wait reveals that the two sides have limited shared interests, and saw a summit as a relatively low priority, with few potential gains. Putin was disappointed that Kim did not accept invitations to Moscow in 2015 to commemorate the end of World War II and in 2017 for a meeting on regional economic development. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok, Russia. Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

For North Korea, Russia’s relative influence and importance remains low. China’s economic and political influence on North Korea vastly eclipses that of Russia, and North Korea sees its relationship with the United States as the primary obstacle to its development objectives.

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Where does Russia stand on sanctions relief? What is its trade relationship with North Korea?

Russia has been an essential partner in UN Security Council (UNSC) deliberations to impose sanctions related to North Korean nuclear and missile tests. But Russia has not strongly enforced UNSC resolutions. Russian companies have re-exported North Korean coal and transshipped oil and petroleum to other countries in violation of UN sanctions. Russia continues to allow upward of ten thousand North Korean laborers to work in Russia despite international efforts to prevent Pyongyang from earning foreign currency from forced labor abroad.

In his post-summit press conference, Putin indicated that there should be “solutions available that would allow us to avoid confrontation” and praised North Korean laborers as “diligent, law abiding people.” Russia has also unsuccessfully advocated for what the United States regards as premature relaxation of UNSC sanctions on North Korea.

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Russia-North Korea trade in 2018 totaled just $34 million, a 56 percent decrease from 2017, significantly less than the $2.43 billion between China and North Korea in 2018. Transactions with China account for almost 90 percent of North Korea’s recorded foreign trade. Russian interests in North Korea over the past decade have primarily been mercantile, including interest in exploring energy and transshipment of goods to South Korea via railways and pipelines through the North. But the infrastructure investments that Russia would have to make in North Korea have been impeded by financing constraints and a hostile business environment. Putin also identified the U.S.-South Korea alliance as an obstacle to the realization of Russian-Korean energy cooperation.

The Soviet Union supported North Korea during its early days, but their relationship became strained.  What factors continue to impact the relationship today?

The historical relationship makes Russia familiar to North Korea, with many Russian speakers among older North Korean elites and a shared communist history. But the breakup of the North Korea-Soviet Union relationship in 1990 was sudden and ugly. While Russia maintained a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the withdrawal of substantial economic subsidies to Pyongyang and a decades-long effort to renegotiate North Korea’s outstanding debt to Russia. The fall of the Soviet Union also provided a historical burden in that Kim hopes to avoid replicating the Soviet experience.

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