Notwithstanding the symbolism of its national coat of arms - a two-headed eagle facing East and West - Russia has traditionally been seen as an ambivalent player in Asia. Nevertheless, given the recent Putin-Kim summit in Vladivostok and Vladimir Putin’s subsequent visit to Beijing for the second Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum, it would be a mistake to write off Russia’s involvement in regional affairs.
So, how do Korean security issues fit into the broader tenants of Russian foreign policy? What sort of contribution can we expect from Putin’s ‘pragmatic’ policy line, given the recent stalling of the Korean denuclearisation process?
A lot of attention has been given to the symbolism attached to the Putin-Kim Summit that took place in Vladivostok in April. This was the first official summit between Putin and Kim Jong-un, viewed as ‘long-overdue’ given it was the first official summit with Kim Jong-un as the leader of the DPRK. Yet while it served as an important reminder of Russia’s role in regional affairs - as well as clarifying Russian support for the ‘double-freeze’ denuclearization process advocated by both Russia and China. It is also widely believed to have given Kim diplomatic leverage to use with ongoing US denuclearisation talks.
Media coverage of the summit has tended to highlight the common interests of Russia and North Korea, while also playing up the significance of the budding Putin-Kim rapport – for instance by emphasising that their private meeting lasted almost twice as long as originally scheduled. This is in stark contrast to the latest Trump-Kim summit which was abruptly ended ahead of schedule.
Economic Cooperation: An Underlying Theme
A lot of media coverage has previously discussed the economic interests of Russia’s bilateral and trilateral cooperation with both North and South Korea, particularly given the synergy with the New Northern Policy advocated by ROK’s current Moon Administration. Yet, while the talks touched upon the possibility of economic cooperation, including the construction of new power lines and oil and gas pipelines reaching from Russia to North Korea, Putin was careful to maintain a distance and continued to stress the need to reach a breakthrough with the United States to ease international sanctions.
It is also significant to note that when it comes to North Korea, economic and humanitarian questions are often intertwined. For instance, while the number of North Korean workers in Russia has been steadily decreasing due to UN sanctions, approximately 10,000 remaining workers will need to leave Russia by the end of this year if sanctions are not lifted. It is thus unsurprising that the role of Russia in helping ease the tensions continues to be high on North Korea’s agenda. Russia, however, has remained careful in adhering to the UN sanctions, notwithstanding some accusations, which reiterates its desire to pursue a pragmatic policy rather than showing outright support for North Korea by violating the sanctions directly.
Reflecting Russia’s past role in the Six-Party process and current Eurasia policy emphasis, regionalism and common-security goals continue to be prevalent themes in Korean affairs. For instance, a Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, noted that "North Korea is a border country for us, we have a common border. And when we deal with North Korea, we deal with our own region, and when the Americans deal with North Korea, they deal with our region".
In addition to reflecting a perceived difference in the US and Russian position, the tendency to employ regional-security language is reinforced by Russia’s pro-multilateralism position. In line with the usual Russian approach, the recent summit also included mention of multilateral mechanisms as a means of breaking the current denuclearisation deadlock, following the persistent failure of US and DPRK to come to an agreement on the denuclearisation process.
In the short-run, given the current status of the US-DPRK denuclearisation talks, the Kim-Putin summit was an important diplomatic milestone within Russia-DPRK relations, which may aid Kim by strengthening his diplomatic leverage. In the long-run, this acknowledgment for Russia's regional presence and the establishment of personal rapport between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un serve as a vital foundation for strengthening Russo-North Korean ties in the context of broader regional dynamics.
Overall, we can conclude that the Russian position remains characterised by a pragmatic engagement with the North Korean regime and is driven by a desire to maintain stability vis-a-vis diplomatic dialogue on the Korean Peninsula. The recent Putin-Kim summit in Vladivostok was aligned with Russia’s desire to prevent tension-escalation amidst stalled US-DPRK bilateral talks while also serving to symbolically highlight Russia’s regional role, which is argued to serve both national and regional interests.
Under Putin, it can be said that the double-headed eagle is indeed becoming an accurate symbol of Russia’s unique position as a player in both European and Asian affairs. Symbolism aside, even as Russia continues to maintain some distance from taking sides on Korean Peninsula issues, it would be better described as a deliberate, rather than ambivalent, policy choice.
Kate Kalinova is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.