On Feb. 3, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent out Lunar New Year greeting cards to international allies. For the third year in row Russia was listed at the top of the list of friendliest countries, relegating China to second place.
Gone are the days when Beijing was by far the Democratic People’s Republic’s most reliable partner. And, as China severed ties, there is considerable evidence that China and North Korea are no longer as close as "lips and teeth." The Chinese President Xi Jinping has yet to meet with Kim Jong-un since he assumed power five years ago.
And although China accounts for 90 percent of North Korea's trade (the bilateral exchanges have grown by tenfold in 15 years), it is beginning to appear that even Pyongyang's main guarantor is almost fed up with the northern regime. Since Feb. 19 Beijing has suspended all imports of coal from North Korea until the end of the year, as part of its efforts to implement United Nations sanctions to rein in the country's nuclear program.
Previously, China made exceptions for deliveries intended for "the people's wellbeing" and not connected to the nuclear or missile programs. Despite the tough resolution, the loophole allowed China’s coal imports from North Korea to surge to 2 million tonnes in December, exceeding the UN Security Council’s monthly limit by at least one million tonnes and nearly US$115 million.
Now, China's new restrictions have the potential to cripple North Korea's already moribund economy. Coal has accounted for 34-40 percent of North Korean exports in the past several years, and almost all of it was shipped to China, according to South Korean government estimates.
Even though a painful divorce is unlikely, China has done nothing to hide its annoyance over the murder of Kim Jong-un's stepbrother in Malaysia. Also US pressure continues to grow. As North Korea's expert Yang Xiyu said to Bloomberg, for Beijing and Pyongyang, "economic sanctions are not as important as political sanctions. The lack of leadership meetings and high-level dialogues are how China exerts political pressure.”
And although there are several reports arguing that China is continuing to import U.N.-sanctioned minerals from North Korea, undoubtedly bilateral relations are no longer business as usual.
It is in this context that, after years of relative disengagement, Moscow is emerging as a redeeming patron of the northern regime. Even though Russia can never replace China as a source of economic assistance or trade, it can mitigate somewhat Pyongyang’s sufferings. As with China, the friendly ties between Moscow and Pyongyang date back to the Korean War. At that time, the Soviet Union was North Korea’s main trading partner and sponsor.
However, in the past few years, Russia's influence over the security situation in the Korean peninsula has remained relatively limited. Moscow has participated in the now-suspended Six-Party Talks - along with China, South Korea, Japan and the US – but hasn't provided military equipment since 1989, when it scaled down relations with Pyongyang in favor of reconciliation with South Korea.
To date, the Russian government has officially supported sanctions trying to curb North Korea's fast-expanding nuclear and missile programs. But judging by the recent developments, the Russian leadership has made a political decision to expand economic cooperation with North Korea and stimulate Russia's business interests with the DPRK.
In September 2012 Moscow agreed to write off 90 percent of North Korea's US$11 billion historic debt to Russia as a sign of closer engagement with North Korea's new leader. The US$1 billion North Korea has to repay will be used to finance Russian investment in humanitarian and energy projects in North Korea.
"This agreement removed legal blocks hindering the financing of trade between the two countries," according to the website 38 North Georgy Toloraya, the Director of Korean Programs at the Institute of Economy at the Russian Academy of Science. Two years later, the Russian government has set a goal of growing the volume of its trade with North Korea tenfold to US$1 billion by 2020 - the year before its share in the foreign trade of North Korea accounted for a mere 1 percent.
The most obvious result was that Russian products, including food and medicine, have started rapidly replacing Chinese goods at North Korea’s local unofficial markets since late 2014, as they are generally seen to be of better quality at cheaper prices, according to sources inside the country.
Still, infrastructure and energy are the sectors attracting the most investment. On Jan. 31, Russia’s state news agency TASS reported that Russia Railways representatives visited North Korea to discuss an expansion of the Rajin-Hasan railway, which links Russia to the Korean peninsula. More recently, the Japanese newspaper Nihon Keizai disclosed that Russia and North Korea are deepening bilateral relations with a "labor immigration agreement" aimed to boost economic development in the Russian Far East with a low-cost North Korean work force.
It's estimated about 40,000 North Koreans now work in labor-intensive industries in the country to earn foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime – numbers expected to rise. Meanwhile, Siberian oil companies have sometimes sold fuel to North Korea via a supply route linking Vladivostok to Rajin, providing the North Korean regime with vital hard currency, as the DPRK has processed Siberian oil in chemical plants and resold it to Chinese consumers.
But Moscow's interest in North Korea is not limited to expanding its economic influence. From a political perspective, it seems that recently Russian commitment in the Hermit Kingdom has alike surpassed China's. In February 2014, during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a delegation headed by Kim Yong-nam, the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea, traveled to represent North Korea, while many leaders decided to snub the event to deliberately shame the Putin regime.
What's more, though ingnored by the Chinese establishment, Kim Jong-un was invited to attend the Victory Day celebration in Red Square in May 2015, which honored the 70th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany. Security concerns have induced him to decline the invitation, but future development might be around the corner.
According to Sputnik - many US experts think that Kim could decide to turn to the Russian president to arrange a meeting with Donald Trump, a diplomatic effort which, until not long ago, would have certainly fallen on the shoulders of Beijing. During his electoral campaign, the new occupant of the White House announced he would be open to talks with Kim, but over the last few months further provocations by the young leader have prompted Washington to toughen its stance.
Almost certainly North Korea will be high on the agenda when Trump and the Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida this week, though chances of achieving concrete results are low.
Taking a closer look, the Russian diplomatic pressure is characterized by a certain farsightedness. As Samuel Ramani explains in The Diplomat, what Moscow really wants is to expand its role as a stakeholder in the preservation of long-term peace in the Korean peninsula. With an eye on the upcoming elections in Seoul, Russia is betting on the defeat of the right-wing Liberty Korea Party (formerly known as Saenuri) to improve relations with South Korea. The rise of left-leaning South Korean politicians and a more conciliatory line could increase Russian influence over the security situation on the Korean peninsula, as Moscow would be able to uniquely position itself as a strategic partner of both Pyongyang and Seoul.
Putin may succeed in controlling the Kim's regime by linking a North Korean pledge of non-aggression on the Korean peninsula to the maintenance of Russia’s stiff border control policies - according to a treaty between Moscow and Pyongyang on the repatriation of criminals, Kremlin policymakers have mandated the deportation of all North Koreans who illegally enter Russian territory.
Bearing all this in mind, one may well wonder how Moscow's economic and political rapprochement is viewed in Beijing. After years of ups and downs, now the two Eurasian giants are on the same page on many issues, from the South China Sea to Washington’s deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. On the one hand, Russian engagement may clear the second largest economy of a heavy responsibility, as avoiding an abrupt collapse of the Northern regime is still the Chinese priority. But on the other hand, it may also hinder Beijing's effort to bring Pyongyang back to the table.
"I doubt the Chinese are worried about Pyongyang’s ties to Russia" said Daniel Sneider, Associate Director for Research Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, "if anything they probably welcome the Russians taking on some of the burden of propping up the regime. The only change that could seriously weaken North Korea’s dependence on China will be the advent of a progressive government in South Korea which will reopen significant trade and investment ties with the North, potentially at least.”