Putin and the Hermit Kingdom

Why Sanctions Bring Moscow and Pyongyang Closer Together

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves to the people during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang July 27, 2013. Jason Lee / Courtesy Reuters

If the rumors are true, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will visit Russia in May during a commemoration of World War II in Moscow. Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora also recently confirmed that “Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin exchange messages on a regular basis.” On the surface it seems that a revitalized Russian–North Korean alliance could be in the offing. Observing this trend, many strategists have argued that Russia’s interests in North Korea are overwhelmingly economic, including a transcontinental railroad and gas pipeline that would run through the nation. But Russia’s dalliance with North Korea also fits a geopolitical pattern reminiscent of the Cold War’s early days: Great power competition with the United States drives Russia’s North Korea strategy, and diplomatic niceties between these former communist allies disguise Russia’s true motivations.

When U.S.–Russian relations are hostile and confrontational, Russia moves closer to North Korea. During amicable periods in U.S.–Russian relations, Moscow maintains a healthy distance from Pyongyang. U.S. policymakers interested in imposing costs on Russia for its expansionist behaviors by sending arms to Ukraine must thus recognize that Russia’s geopolitical chessboard is neither limited to the Ukrainian conflict, nor to Europe at large. Russia will not go to war to defend North Korea in the face of military escalation, but if U.S.–Russian relations remain on hostile footing—which seems likely—Russia may return to its old Cold War tactics on the Korean Peninsula. Russia can (and has) frustrated the United States there before, and could easily do so again in the wake of current economic sanctions.


In 1968 U.S.–Soviet relations were confrontational, yet stable. By that time, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was several years into a strategy of building bridges to the Soviet Union’s Eastern European client states through economic and cultural programs intending to sever Soviet influence. In January that year, North Korean naval forces seized the USS Pueblo

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