Russia’s influence over North Korea limited, analyst says

Russia harbors ambitions to play a more significant role in East Asia, but also faces limited options — owing to its lack of influence over North Korea — and perhaps insufficient interest in becoming too involved in regional affairs.

Russia has a stake in peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, but its influence over North Korea is limited, a Russian analyst said Wednesday. File Photo by How Hwee Young/EPA
Russia has a stake in peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, but its influence over North Korea is limited, a Russian analyst said Wednesday. File Photo by How Hwee Young/EPA

Anna Kireeva of Moscow State University of International Relations said Wednesday the administration of President Vladimir Putin sees Russia as a “great power,” and with that power comes an interest in having “more stake in East Asia and East Asian affairs.”

“One of the major developments of Russia’s foreign policy from the beginning of the 21st century is what has been called Russia’s turn to the East, Russia’s pivot to Asia,” the analyst said at The Korea Society, borrowing a phrase once used to describe a foreign policy strategy of the Barack Obama administration. “It has been a strategic foreign policy dimension for us for a very long time.”

The push to do more in East Asia may be the consequence of successful trade ties following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Trade increased at least tenfold from 2000-12 with countries like China and South Korea, the Russian analyst said.

East Asia’s value in serving Russian economic interests could be driving Moscow’s preoccupation with peace and stability.

“Russia has a stake in the stability of the Korean peninsula,” Kireeva said, adding Moscow “has always been trying to promote dialogue between North and South Korea.”

Flourishing trade ties, however, do not extend to North Korea, the analyst said.

“Economic relations [with North Korea] is small, less than $100 million, $76 million,” she said, referring to annual World Trade Organization statistics from 2016.

“That cannot be considered a substantial figure by any means.”

Earlier on Wednesday in Seoul U.S. President Donald Trump urged China and Russia to do more to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

But according to Kireeva, Russia’s position is “extremely small” on North Korea, and Moscow may be doing enough by serving as a go-between on behalf of other governments.

Russia’s foreign ministry may have recently offered to broker talks between Pyongyang and Washington before and during the 2017 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference in October.

Russia also may be averse to crossing the border into North Korea, should the regime in Pyongyang become destabilized, the analyst said.

“I don’t see Russia invading somebody there,” or going into North Korea, Kireeva said. “In the event of regime collapse, I don’t think Russia would deploy troops or do anything about that.”

The analyst also suggested Russia would not welcome the presence of North Korean refugees, should they attempt to flee their country at a time of crisis.

The countries share an 11-mile border.

Kireeva said Russia “cannot have North Korean refugees” because they could have an adverse impact on the “development of the Russian Far East.”

Moscow, however, has until recently been far more accommodating of North Korean forced laborers, sometimes referred to as guest workers.

There are currently “32,000 North Koreans” in areas in and around Vladivostok who will “have to go back to North Korea” because of international sanctions.

Kireeva told UPI that Russia is taking the embargoes seriously and that “it is 100 percent likely Russia will enforce sanctions,” although Russian demand for cheap labor may be high, particularly in the areas of construction, logging and heavy industries.

Working conditions at Russian sites are reportedly substandard for North Koreans, and dozens of North Koreans may have died at sites in the country from 2015-16.

North Koreans trying to flee sites in Russia may also face physical punishment, but some workers may prefer to stay despite the new sanctions.

Kireeva, however, told UPI working conditions for North Korean workers are not substandard.

“Actually they are much better when compared to Kaesong,” the analyst said, referring to the shuttered factory park in North Korea once jointly run with South Korea.

Kireeva also said the salaries North Koreans receive in Russia is “two times larger in Russia, than in Kaesong.”

North Korea has deployed workers overseas to earn money for Kim Jong Un’s weapons program, and for the North Korean leader’s personal use.

By Elizabeth Shim