How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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, a U.S. intelligence collection vessel, along with its surviving 81-man crew. When Secretary of State Dean Rusk approached his Soviet counterpart to request Soviet mediation to resolve the crisis, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko rebuffed his request. When the United States brought the Pueblo’s seizure to the UN Security Council for action, the Soviet Union used its veto power to block any resolution. And as the United States sent military reinforcements into the Korean arena, including the USS Enterprise Carrier Strike Group, the Soviet Union complicated matters by responding with the mobilization of Soviet warships into the Sea of Japan, compelling Johnson to withdraw the Enterprise.
The United States would eventually resolve the Pueblo crisis, but only after a year of direct negotiations with North Korea in which it conceded to the demands that Pyongyang had laid out at the beginning of the affair. Against the backdrop of the Cold War rivalry, the Soviets seemed to take a certain glee in U.S. frustrations with North Korea.
By contrast, as U.S.–Soviet relations started to thaw in the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union became a crucial partner in U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula. North Korea joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985 only because the Soviet Union, at the United States’ request, pressured it to do so. Following improved U.S.–Soviet relations in the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began improving relations with South Korea, eventually denouncing the Soviet Union’s 1961 alliance treaty with the North. By 1991, it was evident that North Korea was operating a clandestine nuclear program, which pushed Russia to become a tacit ally with the United States, even threatening to place its own sanctions on North Korea if the nation did not cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. During the George W. Bush administration, a period when U.S.–Russian relations were steady and generally positive, Russia played a constructive—if peripheral—role in the various configurations of regional dialogue to denuclearize North Korea. As U.S. and Russian interests increasingly diverged—from Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia to conflicts in Libya, Syria, and now Crimea—pragmatic cooperation eventually gave way to strategic competition and renewed rivalry.
U.S.–Russian relations are more hostile today than at any time since the Cold War. The United States again finds itself debating whether and how to confront Russian aggression, imposing economic sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Crimea, and seeking to reinvigorate NATO. A public debate has ensued about whether the United States should send arms to Ukraine. U.S. defense intellectuals, and some within the Obama administration, have become vocal advocates of this option. It is within this context that Russia is suddenly expressing an economic interest in North Korea, increasing political exchanges between the two nations, and planning military exercises with the North for the first time in decades.
Yet again, great power dynamics are driving Russian calculations on the Korean Peninsula. Russian strategy toward Asia—and especially North Korea—is not predetermined but contingent upon the country’s larger relationship with the United States. Put simply, the Cold War rivalry pattern has been renewed: Russian relations with North Korea are good because relations with the United States are bad. Arguments suggesting Russia’s current posture toward North Korea is driven by economic incentives alone overlook this pattern, as economic relations with North Korea have only flourished during periods of U.S.–Russian hostility. At any rate, North Korea’s deadbeat debtor reputation, moribund economy, and low-skill labor pool—to say nothing of political risk and horror stories of Chinese investments gone awry—all cast a shadow of doubt on claims that Russia’s motivations in North Korea are purely economic.
As the United States invests time and political capital in isolating North Korea internationally, Russian debt forgiveness, currency exchange, and trade give Pyongyang a lifeline that alleviates international pressure. North Korea has an interest in diversifying its external relations too, since Beijing has started to grow weary of the nation’s irresponsible international behavior. Putin has extended an invitation to Kim Jong Un to visit Russia and cancelled $10 billion of North Korean debt, as the logic of Russia’s geopolitical rivalry with the United States demands. As North Korea’s conventional military capabilities have gradually rusted away, Russian military aid offers the prospect of rejuvenation. Russia may even see potential for North Korea to open up a new front of crisis or limited conflict that draws U.S. attention away from what it does on its European periphery.
Should the United States be concerned over a renewed Russian–North Korean friendship? Yes and no. Russia’s interests in Korea are purely instrumental, and are not driven by Russia’s insecurity or ethno-historical claims to Crimea and other parts of its near abroad. We should therefore expect a rational limit to Russia’s willingness to spend blood and treasure on North Korea. Even if Russia formally rekindles an alliance with North Korea, which seems unlikely, Russia can offer no credible extended deterrence because North Korea’s significance to Russia is mostly limited to being a thorn in the United States’ side. A Putin promise to fight the United States on behalf of the North would be laughable under current circumstances.
Still, Russia does not have to risk much in order to play the role of spoiler in U.S. strategy toward Asia, of which North Korea is a major part. Russia’s position in Asia, both geographically and politically, provides it opportunities to oppose and even undermine the region’s precarious liberal order. On the Korean Peninsula, Russia has a long history of disruption through economic aid, the provision of military arms, and the training and deployment of foreign military forces throughout the Cold War—minor costs if the result is a humbled, restrained adversary.
As U.S. policymakers weigh whether to arm Ukraine, Russian–North Korean history urges them to judge the benefits and risks not simply in terms of NATO, the European theater, or the costs that Russia may pay in diplomatic and financial capital for its actions in Crimea. Russia’s borders are not limited to Europe, and neither are its abilities to hamper U.S. interests, which are arguably greater in Asia than in Ukraine. Putin might be using North Korea to distract and stoke the ire of Washington, but given the success of this strategy in the past, it would be unwise to underestimate its significance.
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