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N. Korea Looks to Russia for Leverage Against China

Kim Jong-il Plays the Russian Card
Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Kim Jong-il returned in August from his first visit to Russia in nine years with promises for vastly expanding economic ties with his great northern neighbor. Now the question is whether or not North Korea and Russia can fulfill the deals they agreed on at Kim’s summit in Siberia with Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev. Among the most important is a project for a pipeline for shipping natural gas from the Russian far east through North Korea to South Korea.

The deal carries conditions that will undoubtedly complicate matters. No one forgets that Russia has long hoped for a rail line from South Korea through North Korea to Siberia and westward to Europe. That idea remains a fantasy for the future, dormant while North and South Korea confront each other as they have since the Korean War. In the case of the pipeline, Kim Jong-il told a senior Russian official the deal is contingent on Russia and South Korea signing a contract for the pipeline. As reported by Russia’s Interfax news agency, all North Korea wants is payment of fees for piping natural gas through North Korea.

It’s difficult to believe, however, that North Korea would not want to siphon off some of that natural gas to fuel its own dilapidated economy, and it’s also question able whether the North would be willing to see natural gas going from Russia to South Korea. At the least, such a deal would give North Korea extraordinary leverage over both Russia and South Korea. In times of confrontation with the South, North Korea could turn the spigot on the pipeline, slowing or stopping the flow southward.

Considering North Korea’s takeover in August of the Mount Geumgang tourist complex, South Korean officials may have trouble placing confidence in any arrangement that gives the North life-and-death power over the project. While Kim Jong-il was still in Russia, North Korea expelled the last South Korean managers from the complex in which Hyundai Asan, one of the Hyundai Group’s companies, had poured more than a billion dollars. That was North Korea’s revenge for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s halting tours from the South three years earlier, which in turn was a response to a North Korean guard shooting and killing a South Korean woman who had strayed outside the tourist zone.

Natural gas, however, was not the only economic dividend of Kim Jong-il’s visit on a mission in which he also advanced diplomatic and political interests. En route to the summit on a military base near the city of Ulan-Ude, Kim visited the Bureiskaya hydroelectric plant in the Amur River region. The implication was that eventually power lines from the plant might transmit electricity into North Korea. Again, however, the prospects for reaching a final deal remain un certain. It’s not likely that North Korea will begin to acquire either electrical power or natural gas from Russia in time to enhance the North’s drive to emerge as a “strong and prosperous nation” in 2012.

Kim’s visit to Russia had quite another purpose: to play Russia against China as a source of aid and diplomatic support. Since visiting the Russian far east nine years earlier as the guest of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Kim had gone to China five times, most recently in May as the guest of President Hu Jintao. There’s no way North Korea can survive without Chinese food and fuel, but still the need to cozy up to Russia, with which North Korea shares a 12-mile border at the mouth of the Tumen River, was obvious. Lest the Chinese think he was getting overly friendly with the Russians, however, Kim returned to North Korea via China.

State Councilor Dai Bingguo met him at the border, and from there his train took him to Qiqhar to look at a motor vehicle plant and on to Daqing to survey China’s biggest source of the oil the Chinese send to North Korea. At Manzhouli, also on the border with Russia, he met another familiar interlocutor, Chinese Communist Party envoy Wang Jiarui, who has frequently visited him in Pyongyang to coordinate on tricky diplomacy vis-à-vis his main enemies, the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

Wang undoubtedly wanted to know how the summit had gone between Kim and Medvedev on the whole question of six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program, last held in Beijing in 2008. The Russian media reported that Kim told Medvedev his country would “be ready to solve the problem of imposing a moratorium on the test and production of nuclear weapons.” In reality, however, all Kim was believed to have done was to push the notion of returning to the talks as he had already done in meetings with Hu Jintao. The suggestion of a moratorium, if true, seemed more like a gesture to Kim’s Russian hosts than as a serious sign of willingness to scale back, much less give up, his beloved nuclear program.

“This is a gift to the Russians,” said Choi Jin-wook, long-time North Korea specialist at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “They want to give leverage to the Russians” as a major regional power while pushing longstanding proposals for deals on natural gas and electricity and accepting a gift of 50,000 tons in food for the North’s hungry people.

The fact is, North Korea has never tested missiles or nuclear warheads during six-party talks. North Korea has twice conducted underground nuclear tests, first in October 2006 and again in May 2009, but is not likely to conduct a third test while talking up six party talks with U.S. officials in New York, with Chinese leaders in Beijing, and again in the summit in Siberia. “It is quite natural” that Kim Jong-il “should not test nuclear devices while talks are on,” said Choi. “That’s the meaning of a moratorium.”

If Kim’s summit quickened the pace toward renewed six-party talks, officials still harbor no hopes they will lead to resolution of issues. South Korea’s nuclear negotiator, Wi Sun-lac, meeting in Beijing with Chinese negotiator Wu Dawei, said he wanted to speed up the process, but the South Ko reans and Americans all say North Korea has to show it’s serious about abandoning its nukes, suspending the program and letting inspectors from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency verify compliance. Kim Jong-il, however, had other concerns in Russia. He also needed to convince the Russians, as he had the Chinese, to accept his third son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-eun, as his successor. At the same time, he had to worry about the implications of the downfall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi on his plans to perpetuate his dynasty. “That dynamic is probably much more alarming to Kim Jong-il than anything else,” said Lee Jong-min, dean of international studies at Yonsei University here. “He’s prompted by the need to bolster his power.”

Although the North Korean media shields most of the country’s 24 million people from news about the Middle East, word of rebellion seeps through via clandestine radios and word-of-mouth from people who cross the Tumen and Yalu river borders into China on illicit trading expeditions. It’s because of the fear of revolutionary fervor spreading to North Korea, said Lee, that Kim is anxious to convince Russian leaders that Jong-eun, in his late 20s, is strong enough to rule a populace enervated by years of famine and disease. Kim Jong-il “wants to buff up his son’s standing, said Lee Jong-min. “That’s the major driver.”

Then too, Kim Jong-il needed to get Russia’s enthusiastic support for six-party talks. “North Korea and China both say they want six-party talks,” said Kim Tae-woo, a military analyst and president of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “He wants to add Russia to the list.” Beyond that, said Kim Tae-woo, “He needs some declaration from Russia of North Korea as “a strong and great nation.” That term is a persistent theme of North Korean rhetoric as the regime gears for Kim Jong-il’s 70th birthday in February and the 100th anniversary in April of the birth of his long-ruling father, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

The build-up for those dates explains North Korea’s global campaign for donations from just about everywhere. North Korea received US$4.5 million in aid for flood relief from South Korea and US$900,000 from the United States in August. The question now is whether or not U.S. and South Korean aid will substantially increase. After his inauguration in 2008, President Lee, judging the Sunshine policy of reconciliation pursued for a decade by his leftist predecessors as a failure, stopped annual shipments from the South of several hundred thousand tons of rice and fertilizer. Lee said that the North first had to live up to agreements reached in 2007 for giving up its nuclear program.

No one expects North Korea to abandon the program. By pursuing talks, however, the North evinces unmistakable signs of wanting to reduce tensions, inflamed last year by two incidents in the Yellow Sea -- the sinking of a South Korean navy corvette and the shelling of an island in which all told 50 people died. North Korea’s reliance on China not only makes a mockery of its policy of Juche, meaning self-reliance, but also compromises the country’s very independence. The North Koreans want economic assistance “from the outside, possibly from the United States,” said Kim Tae woo. “Kim Jong-il is trying to get more from Russia. And then they are trying to balance between Russia and China. They may be seeking leverage against China.”

All the while, North Korea faces repercussions of the Jasmine Revolution sweeping the Middle East. Sub-rosa criticism of the regime, defiance against officials and occasional isolated acts of violence are reported in risky cell phone calls and other stories told by rising numbers of defectors. “The North Koreans need to tighten their control internally,” said Kim Tae-woo, while turning to its two huge neighbors for succor, both of whom saved the North from oblivion in the Korean War.

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