There are increasing signs that Russia and North Korea -- former Cold War allies -- are getting closer to each other. This could change geopolitics in the region and affect the international endeavors to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile belligerence.
One palpable sign came at the UN Security Council early this month, where Russia thwarted adoption of a new resolution against the launch of what the North claimed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Russia, one of the five permanent members of the UNSC, was more outspoken and proactive in opposing punishment of North Korea than China, whose participation in UN-led sanctions against the North had strained their bilateral ties.
The Russian acting ambassador to the UN insisted that the missile North Korea launched July 3 was not an ICBM but an intermediate-range ballistic missile. The Russian deputy foreign minister also said in Moscow this week that Moscow opposes sanctions that seek economic isolation of North Korea. Russia particularly objects to banning oil exports to North Korea and prohibiting North Korean labor exports.
Gennady Gatilov also emphasized the need to consider the humanitarian problems faced by millions of North Koreans.
Obviously, Russia is opposed not merely to a new UN resolution but sanctioning the North itself.
The close bond between Russia and North Korea is supported by trade figures. According to the Korea Trade-investment Promotion Agency in Seoul, Russian exports to North Korea in the first five months of this year stood at $48 million, almost double the amount in the same period last year.
A bigger cause for concern is that about 90 percent of the Russian exports to North Korea are oil and mineral materials. The Voice of America also reported recently that Russian exports of oil to North Korea were worth $2.3 million in the first four months of this year, compared with $740,000 a year ago.
This could dent the moves of the US and other members of the international community to ban exports of crude oil and petrochemical products to North Korea. Most recently, the US House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill that bans oil exports to North Korea, employment of North Korean workers, passage of North Korean ships and online transactions of North Korean goods.
In other words, Russia could create a new loophole, following the one already made by China, in the international sanctions aimed at pressuring Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile ambitions and come to the negotiation table.
Besides expansion of trade of strategic materials like oil, there were more signs that Russia and North Korea were forging closer ties at a time when Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing have soured over its nuclear and missile provocations.
In May, a North Korean ferry named the Mangyongbong began running a service between the North Korean port of Rajin and Russia’s Vladivostok. The North Korean ferry used to ply between Japan and North Korea.
Russia also made clear its intention to challenge China for patronage of the North by providing it with “humanitarian aid.” Voice of America reported that about 2,400 tons of Russian flour -- part of 5,200 tons Moscow had committed -- arrived in North Korea last week.
That adds up to another 4,900 tons of flour Russia had already provided to North Korea through the World Food Program this year. VOA said that a Facebook posting by the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang also mentioned Moscow’s plan to donate an additional 2,700 tons of flour to the North.
All these latest developments show that Russia is emerging as a new, major patron and benefactor as the rest of the international community – as US President Donald Trump did – was focused on pressuring China to either persuade North Korea or cut the lifeline it provides to the North.
Obviously, a closer relationship between Russia and North Korea benefits both. Russia can increase its geopolitical clout in the region and have more leverage in its dealings with China and the US. For its part, North Korea can have someone to lean on besides China.
That poses challenges to all the other players in the region, including South Korea and the US. The most pressing challenge is to keep Moscow from creating a bigger loophole in the internationally coordinated sanctions against North Korea.