Russia steps up North Korea support to constrain US

In spite of international sanctions on North Korea's communist regime, Russia has been increasing fuel exports to Pyongyang and filling in the supply gap created by China halting trade. Julian Ryall reports.

Despite efforts by the United Nations to impose isolating sanctions on North Korea in response to the country's continued development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, trade between Russia and North Korea soared more than 85 percent in the first four months of the year.

Citing Russian customs data, the Voice of America broadcaster has reported that bilateral trade climbed to $31.83 million (29 million euros) in the January-March quarter, with the vast majority being energy products going over the border into the North.

This included $22 million worth of coal, lignite with a value of around $4.7 million, and oil estimated at $1.2 million. In return, North Korean exports to Russia were estimated to be worth $420,000. The most significant exports were chemicals and - curiously - wind instruments.

China trade falls

In contrast, North Korea's trade with China, traditionally its most important economic partner, has plummeted. Pyongyang's exports of coal to China in March came to 6,342 tons, a fraction of the 1.44 million tons sent to China in January, with an estimated value of $126.39 million. Similarly, Beijing has stopped supplying critically-needed fuel oil to the North, a clear demonstration of China's displeasure at North Korea's ongoing weapons tests.

The release of the figures detailing Russia's increased trade with North Korea coincide with President Vladimir Putin's statement on Monday that Pyongyang's latest missile launch was "dangerous" - but, he added, "We must stop intimidating North Korea and find a peaceful solution to this problem."

Read more: North Korea claims successful test of new rocket able to carry nuclear warhead

James Brown, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo campus of Temple University, believes some of the cross-border trade may be "economic opportunism" but the motivation for the vast majority of it is geopolitical.

"Russia is very worried about the isolation of North Korea and believes that makes the situation dangerous as the US is taking a confrontational approach," he told DW.

"Moscow's position is that pressure on the North has not worked and has in fact caused Pyongyang to react because it feels threatened," he said. "So instead of isolation, which is not working, Russia is proposing engagement."

Nordkorea Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) Raketentest

The UN condemned North Korea's missile test and vowed new sanctions

New ferry route

The most recent example of this support for Pyongyang is the plan to open a ferry route between North Korea and the Russian Far East port of Vladivostok, although the proposal has been delayed by strong protests from Japan.

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In 2014, Russia announced that it was canceling $10 billion of North Korea's $11 billion in Soviet-era debt and that the remaining $1 billion would be invested back into the country. Russian investors also agreed to sink $25 billion into the North's dilapidated railway system, while more would go into basic infrastructure. The two governments also announced that Russia would rebuild the North's power grid, while the two countries would develop the ice-free port of Rason for exports of Russian coal.

In total, Russia planned to increase bilateral trade almost ten-fold to $1 billion by 2020, and that does not appear to have been hampered by more recent UN sanctions. 

Conflicts

Coal and iron

In August 2017, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution banning all coal, iron, iron ore and lead imports from North Korea. Pictured here is China's Liaoning Greenland Energy Coal Co. in Dandong, on the border with North Korea.

Conflicts

Currency

North Korea is prohibited from opening banks abroad, and UN member states are prohibited from operating financial institutions on Pyongyang's behalf. Any dealings that might help North Korea skirt the sanctions are banned, and UN member states must expel and repatriate anyone working on the regime's financial behalf.

Conflicts

Shipping

This North Korean cargo ship found itself boarded for inspection in the Philippines in March 2016 after the United Nations ordered member nations to de-register any vessel owned, operated or crewed on orders from Pyongyang. North Korean ships also cannot fly the flags of other nations to evade sanctions.

Conflicts

Air travel

Air Koryo, North Korea's national carrier, remains exempt from aviation sanctions and still has scheduled flights to China and Russia, as well as several domestic routes. However, the airline cannot fly to the European Union, which has banned it on safety grounds, and the United States prevents citizens from legally conducting business with the carrier.

Conflicts

Fuel

In December 2017, a new raft of UN sanctions targeted fuel imports in North Korea, meaning its residents could have difficulties driving the country in Pyeonghwa sedans (pictured above). The sale and transfer of diesel and kerosene are limited while the import of crude oil is capped at 4 million barrels a year.

Conflicts

Bank accounts, real estate

UN sanctions limit North Korea's diplomats abroad — at the country's Berlin embassy, for example — to only one bank account each. North Korea is also not permitted to own real estate abroad for any purposes other than consular.

Conflicts

Military training

It's a safe bet that North Korea's marching military did not learn its moves abroad: UN sanctions ban foreign security forces from training the country's army, police or paramilitary units. The United Nations does permit medical exchanges, but otherwise allow very little assistance of scientific or technical value.

Conflicts

Statues

Anyone wanting to own a larger-than-life Kim will have to await the end of North Korea's nuclear program. The UN sanctions currently ban the sale of statues by the nation.

But Putin is also motivated by security concerns in Russia's Far East, Brown said.

"Moscow has always been worried that the defensive missile systems that the US is deploying in the region - the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea and now Japan is discussing having Aegis Ashore - are more directed at its interests than North Korea," he said.

Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, believes that Putin - who is at odds with the international community over the Ukraine conflict and has been accused of meddling in a number of elections, including those in the US and France - may be forging closer ties with Pyongyang to sow further disarray among his perceived enemies.

'Slash-and-burn approach'

"Putin seems to have adopted a slash-and-burn approach to the liberal international order, so anything that serves to undermine institutions such as NATO, the European Union or democracy in general is fair game," Pinkston said. "He is intent on creating instability in a way that serves Russian interests and this sort of multi-front, hybrid war serves to undermine the US and its allies."

"North Korea fits neatly into that agenda because it causes problems for Washington, keeps the US tied down, drains its resources and causes friction with allies in the region."

Pinkston points out that playing neighboring nations off one other for their respective favors is not a new North Korean tactic. It has manipulated China and Russia for its own ends in the past.

"That sort of back-and-forth was easier to pull off in the Cold War, but they seem to be trying to capitalize on their relations with Russia now that China has become more distant," the expert underlined. "And I think it is clear that North Korea will take whatever it can get in terms of political, diplomatic or military support, as well as resources."