Russian Thinking about the Korean Peninsula and the US Role There over a Decade
The Korean Peninsula is arguably the bellwether for Russia’s post-Cold War thinking on East Asia and the US role there. Moscow watched aghast in the 1990s after it had been marginalized in North Korea, where it had established and supported the regime for more than four decades. It struggled in the 2000s with a secondary role in the Six-Party Talks aimed at resolving the issues critical to the North’s future. Only after the breakdown of those talks did the debate begin in earnest on how the peninsula fits into Russia’s regional strategy. Second only to China, Putin’s “Turn to the East” rests on raising his country’s voice there in security, economics, and even identity. North Korea was a critical part of the Soviet sphere of influence, and it has regained centrality in the designs for Russia’s revival in Asia.1
The context for Russian thinking about the Korean Peninsula changed abruptly in February 2022 when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, but it had shifted already in stages over a decade. Three factors were decisive: first, Putin’s ideological drift toward Soviet-era thinking about history, empire, and authoritarianism meant that affinity with North Korea grew stronger; second, Putin’s antipathy toward the United States and the West put South Korea, as a US ally, in a more negative light; and third, Putin’s growing affinity with China led to disregard for multilateralism in Asia in favor of joint or parallel efforts to transform the region, including, first and foremost, the Korean Peninsula. The Ukraine war reinforced these earlier decisions.
On May 15, 2000, Putin declared, “Historically and geopolitically, the Korean Peninsula has always has been within Russia’s sphere national interests.”2 Throughout the 2000s, Moscow continued seeking a multilateral process for establishing a mechanism for “peace and security” centered around the full peninsula. The Six-Party Talks boosted hope for this, especially when Russia was chosen in 2007 to host the working group to develop such a mechanism. Yet after the collapse of the talks, Russia did not envision any other pathway to reassert its relevance but through North Korea, highlighted in a summit with Kim Jong-il in 2011. Along with China, it continued to call for the early resumption of the Six-Party Talks, less for actual denuclearization than for transformation of the regional architecture. Indeed, in 2000-2003, prior to the Six-Party Talks, Putin had sought to forge a special bond with Kim Jong-il, including Putin’s quick trip to Pyongyang in 2000, Kim’s lengthy visit to Russia in 2001, and a failed deputy foreign minister’s preemptive trip to Pyongyang prior to plans for the Six-Party Talks. In 2012-15 Putin launched another initiative to North Korea, again treating it as a key gateway. The breakdown in US-North Korean diplomacy in 2019 raised hopes anew, but the pandemic lockdown in North Korea put ties on hold at least until 2022.
Early in Putin’s “Turn to the East,” there was talk of South Korea along with Japan becoming a kind of pole in the multipolar architecture to emerge. Russia would not have to depend just on China as it capitalized on active initiatives from Seoul and Tokyo to improve relations, offering economic incentives. Yet such talk was soon replaced by references to the Korean Peninsula as one of the vectors of Russian policy, dismissing South Korea alone as a partner with real potential. In diverting from Seoul and reaching out to Pyongyang, Moscow placed its hopes on regional transformation. It was no longer focused on just reentering Asia; it set its sights on recreating a sphere of influence. If balancing with China would be tricky, standing firm against US influence would remain Putin’s unwavering priority in Asia, too.
As much as Park Geun-hye’s Eurasian Initiative and Moon Jae-in’s New Northern Policy tried to keep Putin focused on the benefits of cooperating with Seoul, their imagery of long-term corridors across the Korean Peninsula had no assured payoff, while Putin strove for regional transformation. The message from Moscow to Seoul was mixed. Park Geun-hye’s trustpolitik is better than Lee Myung-bak’s fruitless North Korean policy, but much more is needed, especially through joint economic projects involving Russia. Not only did economic policy have to change, so too did geopolitical priorities and pro-Western illusions that had only served Barack Obama’s policy of isolating the North. The barely concealed warning to Seoul was that if it did not change, Moscow would tilt further to Pyongyang. Indeed, Seoul did seek to keep Moscow’s interest in a north-south corridor alive and did not directly apply sanctions in 2014, unlike Tokyo as part of the G7, but that did not satisfy Putin. The pressure on Seoul kept mounting through the 2010s.3
As Putin’s “Turn to the East” evolved over a decade, his attitudes toward South and North Korea were changing too, although underlying continuity can be detected. In the first years, he kept edging closer to Pyongyang, but the image of multipolarity endured along with an image of Park Geun-hye as interested in improving relations. In the next years, Park’s deployment of THAAD was taken as an unfriendly act and pursuit of Kim Jong-un (despite a setback owing to Russia’s agreement to Security Council resolutions) continued. At the end of the 2010s. Russia took both the breakdown of US-DPRK talks at Hanoi and the onset of what it calls a new cold war as reason to tilt further against South Korea and to defend North Korea, although the pandemic and lingering UN sanctions hindered this agenda.
Russian sources over a decade suggest that Putin’s deepening embrace of China and intensified hostility to the United States reverberated in warming ties to Pyongyang and growing wariness of Seoul. The timeline was affected by upbeat moods under new South Korean presidents and by setbacks in ties with North Korea when its new president held back from diplomacy and after, having outsourced to China Russia’s approach to Security Council sanctions, it angered Kim Jong-un in 2017. Yet by the end of the 2010s Moscow had found an approach in accord with the trend of its earlier thinking: a meeting of the minds with Beijing, maximum opposition to the US position on the Korean Peninsula, support for Pyongyang while waiting for an opening to bypass sanctions, and increasingly overt pressure on Seoul, no longer trying to drive a wedge between it and Washington.
The situation in 2022 aggravated the divide between Moscow and Seoul and held promise for Pyongyang. No matter how provocative North Korea’s new missile tests were seen in Seoul and Washington, Moscow, along with Beijing, refused to take action at the Security Council for violations of past resolutions. The North’s votes in the General Assembly and elsewhere were among the few supportive of Russia, unlike China’s abstentions. South Korea’s sanctions were deemed “unfriendly.” If to 2022 a semblance of optimism prevailed, Russian-ROK ties were in freefall at the time Yoon Suk-yeol assumed the presidency with policy promises derided in Russia.4
Russian Thinking about the Korean Peninsula in 2013-15
Prior to Park Geun-hye’s tenure as president Moscow had soured on relations with Lee Myung-bak, refusing to condemn the North Korean attacks of 2010 and faulting Lee for not following through on Roh Moo-hyun’s support for the Six-Party Talks, overtures to North Korea, and signs of cooperation on economic projects bridging Russia and the Korean Peninsula. Yet Lee began his tenure with a vision for a “New Northeast Asia Economic Community,” backed by plans for massive natural gas imports and then an automobile assembly plant. When results fell far short of the expectations raised at summits, Russia’s tone darkened noticeably.
Casting a shadow on ROK-Russian relations was Russia’s interpretation of its talks with Seoul prior to the breakdown of the Six-Party Talks. As Georgy Toloraya wrote, Russians blamed Lee Myung-bak for both worse Russo-South Korean relations and sanctions against North Korea that damaged North-South relations, brushing aside the North Korean aggression in 2010 that prompted those sanctions. Scuttling plans for three-way cooperation, he claimed, were Seoul’s negative policies, especially putting denuclearization in the forefront and not supporting the resumption of the Six-Party Talks.5
In Park Geun-hye’s first year as president there was palpable optimism that ROK relations with Russia would improve. After the 2012 Vladivostok APEC summit convened close by with an upbeat message about Russia’s interest in becoming more active in East Asia, Putin’s announced “Turn to the East” appeared to have an important place for Seoul. Park declared her “Eurasian Initiative” not only to capitalize on Russia’s signals but also in the expectation that a joint strategy could follow to entice North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, including new economic infrastructure joining Russia to the entire Korean Peninsula. When Vladimir Putin visited Seoul in November 2013, hopes were invigorated that Park had found a winning strategy. In 2008 Russia had commenced the reconstruction of the railway from Khasan to Rajin, which Park endorsed as a step to the trans-Korean rail corridor. The high point across a decade of relations came in this visit.
Park highlighted her proposal of a Silk Road Express between Busan and Europe, winning Putin’s endorsement, treating Rajin port modernization as the first step. A memorandum of understanding stipulated that South Korean companies could participate in this despite the severe sanctions imposed by Seoul on North-South trade in 2010. Meanwhile, ROK-Russian trade had risen to $27 billion in 2014. An especially positive sign to Russia was the abolition of visas for each other’s citizens from January 2014. In these circumstances, the fact that in 2012 Moscow wrote off 90 percent of North Korea’s $11 billion debt with the remainder to be invested in educational, medical, and energy projects and in 2013 tripled the quota for North Korean laborers working in Russia to 50,000 did not arouse substantial alarm in the ROK. Enticing Kim Jong-un, the new leader, was viewed as a joint objective. The mood in 2013 was upbeat that Moscow could impact inter-Korean ties.6
As Ambassador Gleb Ivashentsov explained, Seoul had failed to stick to the script of triangularity, on which Russian hopes had rested. Unlike Lee, Park appeared to favor reviving trilateral economic projects, giving Russia reason to press for more.7 Yet, Ivashentsov was clear in his criticism that she did not go nearly far enough. Even before the events in Ukraine of 2014 set back relations, there was no mistaking the gap in optimism between the two sides. Moscow’s tilt toward Pyongyang was beginning to pick up momentum.
In 2014 not only did Putin’s “Turn to the East” accelerate with China in the forefront but it also gave more weight to North Korea. If 2013 seemed to be a year of upbeat Russian-ROK ties, the following year was much more about improving Russo-DPRK relations. This began before the March invasion of Crimea, reflected in the presence of Kim Yong-nam, the nominal head of state, at the Sochi Olympics, which Park did not attend, although her country would host the next winter Olympics. Accelerating the process was Kim Jong-un’s decision after the Crimean invasion and his execution of his uncle, who had ties to China, to encourage Putin. North Korea was one of just 11 countries to vote against the General Assembly resolution condemning his move into Crimea. In October North Korea’s foreign minister visited Russia for 11 days amid optimism that the Khasan-Rajin rail line would transport Russian coal to South Korea. Yet because Russia insisted that the North pay for purchases or investments with such items as coal, rare earth elements, and other minerals, trade stayed at a low level and did not satisfy the North’s appeal for long-term bilateral agricultural projects, as well as investments in infrastructure. Moscow sought Seoul’s help, but sanctions limited what Seoul would do. Russia’s rising dissatisfaction with South Korea was unmistakable.
Russo-DPRK Negotiations on economic projects started, responding to North Korea’s upbeat mood. More than a dozen agreements were signed, while Russian investors were promised to benefit from exclusive terms. Russia extended food aid and developed cultural cooperation. All of this build-up seemed headed to a visit by Kim to the May 9, 2015 70th anniversary Victory Parade in Moscow, an invitation he even accepted before changing his mind. While Moscow sought Kim’s first visit abroad to showcase its clout in East Asia and the peninsula, Pyongyang sought Putin’s support for their common struggle for a new world order, while stirring Beijing’s ire in order to renew its competition with Moscow over the North. Putin had to take the response of China or others into account, refusing to give Kim much of what had sought.
Pyongyang could demonstrate closeness to Russia to make China nervous and to take advantage of the Russo-US clash. Yet, when Moscow focused on a visit by Kim Jong-un to the February Winter Olympics in Sochi or a year later for the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, Kim Jong-un saw little payoff. As Kim’s first visit abroad, it would showcase Russia’s role on the peninsula, but it failed to promise military cooperation or a major economic payoff. Pyongyang’s main aim seemed to be to make Beijing envious to extract concessions. Kim chose not to visit, but Moscow kept showing its sympathy toward the North as in the August 2015 shooting at the DMZ.
The symbolism of closer ties worked for both sides to a degree. High-sounding deals to invest billions over decades, modernizing North Korean railways and power grids in return for access to vast deposits of coal and metals, were a breakthrough, it was said. They agreed to use Russian rubles for mutual settlement and to establish the Asian Trading House in October 2015 for direct bilateral business contacts without Chinese intermediaries, which has been perceived as re-exporting Russian goods on a large scale.
The more ambitious Russia’s plans with North Korea, the more Russia needed the financial resources and markets of South Korea. The fact that Seoul had not joined in 2014 sanctions despite US pressure kept alive the appearance of such cooperation. Yet abiding by the sanctions and failing to deliver much to support the Khasan line when Russia was eager to advance trilateral projects—even to join the Kaeseong industrial park—left a bad aftertaste. Moscow had even sought to organize a meeting between Park and Kim Jong-un at the 2015 victory parade. The atmosphere was shifting already in 2014, as Russia started criticizing the US military presence in South Korea and joint military exercises, as if they were provocations against the North. Another problem was the economic trouble Russia faced in the second half of 2014, as oil and gas prices fell sharply and the ruble was devalued. Bilateral trade in 2015 was down by a third. Efforts to secure funds for Putin’s Russian Far East and Arctic plans fizzled too with Seoul blamed.
If some assumed that Russia was prioritizing economic ties, the rhetoric coming from Moscow belied that. It called for a shared system of security for Northeast Asia and assumed that North Korea would agree. As in 2000-2003, Moscow sought to woo Pyongyang, dangling triangular ties to Seoul too, treating coal exports from Rajin to Busan as the economic opening and security cooperation as the real goal. Russians spoke of the need for a new regional order, based on a network of three-way partnerships in energy, transport, and security. At this time, it even suggested that both it and Seoul were threatened by growing Sino-US confrontation and could autonomously respond more easily by joining hands for a balanced region—able to reassure North Korea. Praising the policies of South Korean progressives, however, was not a convincing way to win the confidence of a conservative president or deal with the heightened sense of risk in Seoul. Praising Park too for defying US pressure both misjudged the strength of the alliance and offered nothing to put in its stead. Soon, the message would shift to criticism of Seoul for being just a pawn in the US global containment system, serving a strategy to reaffirm US hegemony more than to counter North Korea. If Seoul were to lead in the unification of the peninsula, Russian security would be endangered, unlike the present situation with North Korea, it was said.
Russians blame South Korean conservatives for bad inter-Korean and Russo-South Korean relations. Lee Myung-bak, not Kim Jong-il, was the villain in 2008-10. He damaged ties with his response to Russia’s war with Georgia, he abandoned three-way cooperation by putting denuclearization in the forefront and his supposed role in raising tensions with sanctions on the North and rejection of further Six-Party Talks. Park Geun-hye did not fare much better in Russian assessments despite using the term “Eurasia,” boosting ties with no-visa travel, and winning support for her Northeast Peace and Cooperation Initiative. She resisted Six-Party Talks without preconditions and backed away from three-way projects with the North. If it appeared that Seoul did not join Western sanctions against Russia in 2014 despite intense US pressure, its less overt manner deepened contradictions.
Even before warnings against the deployment of THAAD intensified in 2015, the thrust of Russia’s rhetoric was not that Seoul is a promising economic partner or a pole for the multipolarity promised in Putin’s “Turn to Asia” but a vulnerable target because security is in the forefront, enabling Russia to play its strong suit. As for Pyongyang, its promise was not that it would build trust with Seoul but that it is suspicious of China, giving Russia a partner without obliging it to challenge China or fearing Pyongyang would drop its antipathy toward South Korea. Both geography and history were seen as favoring Russia’s involvement in an environment ideally positioned for great power maneuvering, but Seoul was prone to misjudge this logic.
In the shadow of Park’s “honeymoon” with Xi Jinping in 2013-15, her reset with Putin did not grab headlines. For Putin it was convenient as evidence of success in the “Turn to the East,” multipolarity in Asia, a peninsular-wide economic strategy to entice Pyongyang, and the failure of the US sanctions effort in Asia. Yet returns were limited, and Putin’s impatience showed as he wooed Kim Jong-un eagerly and increasingly soured on Park Geun-hye.
Russian Thinking about the Korean Peninsula in 2016-2018
In 2016 Russia turned sharply against Park for her February decision to deploy THAAD, its actual deployment in July, and the sanctions on North Korea that stymied transit trade on which Russia had counted. Although Moscow voted for the Security Council resolution in March imposing more sanctions, it carved out an exemption for transit coal trade as well as for Russian fuel exports if they were supposedly not for military use. Yet Seoul’s decision days later to prevent participation in the Khasan-Rajin rail line and ships from there to South Korea nullified Moscow’s plans. Less vitriol was directed against Pyongyang than against Seoul and against joint US-ROK military exercises as if they were what is provoking Pyongyang.
If Moscow had anticipated a binding contract to stabilize coal deliveries, that was now off the table. Having delegated the negotiations at the UN to China, as usual, Russia was stunned by the resolution reached, managing to insert exceptions only at the last minute, but not salvaging the rare-earth and other mineral deals it had made. After this wrinkle in Sino-Russian coordination, regularized diplomatic channels made sure that the two better consulted and agreed in advance. This both denied Pyongyang an opening to play one off against the other and reinforced their ever-closer ties. A permanent deputy-minister level strategic “Dialogue on security in Northeast Asia” centered on issues related to Korea was initiated, meeting several times a year, at least. Almost a dozen rounds of consultations took place in 2018 year alone. Of significance was the roadmap Putin and Xi unfolded in their July 4, 2017 summit: suspension of nuclear and missile tests for a moratorium on joint exercises; a joint document of the US, the DPRK, and the ROK setting forth principles such as no use of force; and of special importance to Moscow, resumption of the Six-Party Talks, now seen as directed primarily at establishing a Northeast Asian security framework.
In 2016-17 Moscow was at an impasse in its policy toward the peninsula. Although it kept maintaining that North Korea was behaving defensively and that the response to it was not proportional—whether THAAD, military exercises, or even military preparations—its votes for new UN sanctions and limited economic ties left North Korea with little interest in boosting ties. Meanwhile, Moscow’s harsh rhetoric toward Park left ties with South Korea in limbo, as it could only warn of severe consequences.8 Earlier intensified contacts were not sustained. Yet even as Moscow held open the door to Kim Jong-un, it still left a slight opening for Park’s successor to renew ties. Much was written about Russia’s improved opportunity with North Korea.9
Russian commentaries in 2017 welcomed the departure of Park, insisting that she had been much too tough on North Korea and had cost Russia its coal exports. Not only was the purpose of THAAD described as to contain China, accusations faulted the entire specter of policies by Washington, supported by Seoul, as a pretext for the continuation of the US hegemonic presence in Asia. Having dismissed Park as if her overtures to Putin had been meaningless, Russians approved of Moon’s arrival as if this would split the ROK from Washington, boost North-South ties, and give Moscow the opening it had sought for its peninsular and regional agenda. Backing Moon’s efforts to mend ties with Beijing, Russia kept giving him high marks.
Moon’s Russia policy also drew praise. At the September 2017 Eastern Economic Forum, he announced “9 bridges of development,” through which over three years $2 billion would be invested in projects jointly with Russia. The bridges were well chosen to cover the range of needs in the Russian Far East from shipbuilding to fish farming to port infrastructure to the Northern Sea Route with new LNG supplies beyond the 7 percent of Korea’s market already reached. Moreover, calling for moves to encourage the North, Moon was seen as ready to back Russia’s projects there. Yet security was in the forefront, Putin never losing sight of Moon’s support for US military bases.10
Russian expectations in the fall of 2017, at a time of intense North Korean provocations, were premised on Moon breaking with the United States, as if Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric and unprecedented pressure on South Korea would be decisive along with a progressive president, as earlier sought. Yet both China’s decision to support tougher sanctions in December, with Russia again unhappily in tow, and Moon’s aim to draw Trump into talks with Kim Jong-un left Moscow feeling that it was marginal. For this and other reasons, it redoubled its efforts to coordinate with China, despite the fact that well into 2018 Moscow considered China to be too tough on the North. Indeed, the North Korean problem appeared to be intra-camp: China vs. Russia and the US vs. the ROK until things settled down through the second half of 2018.
The new Sino-Russian understanding on the Korean Peninsula came at a critical time, just before diplomacy heated up. It was one sign of a tightened relationship, more hostile to the United States. If Xi Jinping wavered in late 2017 and Putin felt more aggrieved at being bypassed in 2018, the overall bond held. They both sought to capitalize on Kim Jong-un’s interest in talks and Moon Jae-in’s tensions with the US, agreeing that Kim should stand firm in negotiations and, eventually, that the US caused the Hanoi summit failure.
A year of diplomacy from the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to the Singapore summit to the Hanoi summit drew an ambivalent response from Moscow. On the one hand, the “double freeze” and shift to diplomacy were what it had sought. On the other, it “helplessly saw its influence dwindle.” In May Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went to Pyongyang, offering assurances that Moscow has its interests in mind. Yet the sanctions took a heavy toll on economic relations; bank ties were severed, workers were sent home, and trade fell sharply. Two developments, however, were taken as promising for Moscow, both involving China. With Kim Jong-un’s May visit to Dalian, Moscow was reassured that China’s influence would be substantial, giving it one more reason to expect the US talks to fail. Also, the sharp deterioration in Sino-US relations heartened Moscow, which had been disappointed that Beijing did not take as hard a line as it did. Meanwhile, Moon visited Russia again in June, showing respect for its role in the diplomacy and its interests. No longer was he trying to get Russia to pressure the North, while he even explored an FTA, albeit one that which could have flooded Russia with South Korean cars. While there was little substance, Russia hoped in September at the Eastern Economic Forum Putin could host both Moon and Kim Jong-un.
When China supported “maximum pressure,” although it succeeded in limiting the humanitarian damage, Russia won an exception for the Khasan-Rajin transit for coal trade and an air route. DPRK leaders were not sanctioned, and some oil and petroleum products could still be sent there. When Seoul balked, Pyongyang blamed Moscow too for supporting the UN resolution. Russians calculated that it had turned in 2018 to direct dialogue with Washington, discarding the “Russian card” as worth little. Viewing this as a repetition of failed diplomacy in the 1990s-2000s. when Moscow was marginalized due to weak ties with Pyongyang, it strove to get back in the game through a Putin-Kim Jong-un summit, which finally occurred in 2018.
More important in reviving Russia’s clout was its strengthening coordination with China over North Korea. In July 2017, proposing the dual freeze with China of nuclear and ICBM tests for joint military exercises, Russia sought to remind North Korea of its support. With the 2018 détente, Russia strove harder to boost relations and not to be marginalized. When Kim Jong-un met Putin in Vladivostok, it signaled opposition to US policies and showed that after the failure at Hanoi, Putin was an important card for Kim. It was said that Russia was also playing the “Korean card” in dialogue with Beijing,
Anticipating a battle between Seoul and Beijing for advancing relations with Pyongyang, the Russians saw an opening for their country, but first needed to go around sanctions without getting ahead of China. They also needed to wait until North Korea expressed some interest in Six-Party Talks, which Russians insisted was the only way to manage a breakdownin regional security. Just as Moscow viewed NATO expansion as the loss of a balanced, regional security framework in Europe, it saw Pyongyang justifiably reacting to a breakdown in Northeast Asia’s balance. If in the Cold War Moscow had guaranteed the North’s security, a pathway to that should reemerge.THAAD and ROK-Japan security ties were now equated with a “mini-NATO” in Asia.
Russian Thinking about the Korean Peninsula in 2019-21
As nervous as Moscow was in 2017 and early 2018 by China’s tougher line on North Korea and the North’s focus on diplomacy with the US, it foresaw that these were temporary developments. Thus, Russians were quick to evaluate the summit between Kim and Xi in Dalian as more significant than the Singapore summit of Kim and Trump that same month, which was judged a US failure. China assured Kim, as Russia had done, that he had no need to yield to Trump, in the Russian assessment. Eventually, Washington would have to change its posture toward what Russians call “conditional, reciprocal, incremental denuclearization,” concentrating on the threat to itself and leaving the South to cut a deal leading to a multilateral security architecture—a six-sided format being optimal. Washington would consult with its two allies and Pyongyang with Beijing and Moscow. Until then, Moscow was more interested in weakening the US than in resolving the nuclear question, and it credited Beijing with similar thinking, although China’s desire in 2017-18 to prevent Trump’s “fire and fury” and to salvage Sino-US ties led to a hiccup.
After the Hanoi summit failure, the battlelines were fixed, although Moon sent mixed signals on his intentions. Moscow, along with Beijing, openly called for relaxing what Russians call “anti-North Korean sanctions,” e.g., on December 16, 2018 at the Security Council. It denounced sanctions. Denuclearization, it insisted, would follow only from strengthening confidence-building measures. More critical coverage of South Korea also was evident in 2019, even if Moon continued to receive some praise for struggling against the US hard line.11
The pandemic closed borders in Northeast Asia more firmly than anywhere else, but Russia only redoubled its support for North Korea and for Sino-Russian security ties. Talk of using gaps in sanctions, e.g., humanitarian assistance, hinted at a more lenient attitude toward them, but closed borders overshadowed other plans. Having lost hope in Moon “escaping from foreign dictates,” the prospect of the next president being a conservative was even less palatable. “Disrespect” from the West, including in management of the Korean Peninsula, continued to drive the Russians. Disregard for Seoul as well as Tokyo further dampened interest in active diplomacy. Moon is faulted for failing to meet his obligations to Moscow and Pyongyang, such as the three-way infrastructure projects he had proposed—a “deficit of sovereignty.” Deterioration in North-South relations in 2020 was not blamed on the North, and worsening Sino-US relations were seen as bad for denuclearization. Yet, Putin welcomed the hardening lines of polarization in Asia as in Europe, too.
Distortions abounded in Russian coverage of US policy toward North Korea, as if it is all about regime change and containment of China and Russia. South Korea’s reasoning was dismissed, too; little credit was given to Park or Moon’s overtures to Russia, distorted by a zero-sum attitude toward the US versus Russia, and to the paltry investment in the Russian Far East—less than 5 percent of FDI there. As one writer put it, “Despite all the loud words about friendship and ‘blood kinship,’ Moon has unequivocally decided that because of North Korea, Seoul will not go into a real conflict with the United States. Since everything is decided in the end in the United States, why waste time on South Korea?’”12 This hardened thinking was echoed in many writings.
Summaries of articles by Alexander Zhebin, Alexander Vorontsov, and Gleb Ivashentsov in Country Report: Russia, March and September, 2021 conveyed the flavor of increasingly hardline attitudes toward the peninsula. They frame issues in historical national identities and Russia-US rivalry.
On August 12, Alexander Zhebin wrote about how the two Koreas celebrate their August 15 liberation day, pointing to differences in their views of the role of the USSR. He asserts that the Red Army played a decisive role in the defeat of the Japanese Army on the territory of Manchuria and North Korea. Kim Jong-un sent a telegram to Putin, honoring the memory of the soldiers of the Red Army who died in “the sacred great cause of the liberation of Korea.” In contrast, South Koreans consider Americans their liberators and struggle with the legacy of collaboration, distorting or belittling the role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Japan and liberation of Korea. Newspapers and politicians attack the historical truth, responding to the remarks of a leader of a small political party that the Soviet army came as a liberator and the US as occupiers. Claims that the Soviet Union only entered the war after it had turned into a defeat for Japan are denounced, asserting that only Soviet troops fought the Japanese on Korean territory.
On March 1 in the March/April issue of Rossiia v Global’noi Politike, Zhebin blames the impasse in 2020 on US policy, holding to “maximum pressure,” and Moon Jae-in as incapable of pursuing a more autonomous course from the US in inter-Korean relations. Moon’s policy contrasts with his obligations in the inter-Korean summits of 2018 and declarations to join in three-way infrastructure projects with Russian participation. Putin called this a “deficit of sovereignty.” Given these failures, the DPRK began to view possession of nuclear weapons as the “only guarantee of the security and independence of the country.” It will hold onto then until the unlikely event it is fully assured of the absence of hostile intentions of its opponents and can count on real assistance for development.” Zhebin stresses that US-DPRK talks cannot succeed; a regional architecture for security is essential.
In Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, No. 1, Aleksandr Vorontsov finds that Lee Myung-bak’s “conservative revenge” ruining progress since North Korea remained “enemy number one,” while the US was still under the illusion that “the Pyongyang regime was about to collapse.” Vorontsov agrees that the “six-party format” of negotiations remains optimal today. He approves of calling the approach an “equilibrium of stability or the “Great North Pacific Project.” In such a regional approach the root causes of the proliferation would be removed while resolving other severe regional problems. “The six-sided format could theoretically even be considered as the embryo” of the North Pacific project. As for Russia’s role, the upward trend in Korean affairs is still far from being consolidated.
Gleb Ivashentsov asked whether the Korean War ended. He praised Trump’s diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, but adds that the deep state thwarted it. His recommendation is for “making practical progress,” but faults Biden’s strategy as more like “strategic patience 2.0” than equidistant between Obama and Trump’s approaches. Further he insists that China will not “surrender” the DPRK due to the geopolitical damage that would cause, including China’s loss of a buffer. Given North Korean determination to find a balance between Beijing and Washington, in order to extract dividends from both as it did from Moscow and Beijing during the Cold War, the US will have to find a formula for coexistence, which could be met with strong Chinese opposition. The current situation is in the interest of both China and Russia. The idea is now floating in Washington for arms control on the peninsula. Ivashentsov suggests that Russia should take the role of organizer in the Six-Party Talks framework and help forge a regional security framework.
An authoritative Russian book links the US treatment of Russia elsewhere—ignoring equal dialogue, respect for Russia’s sovereignty, and consideration for its core interests—with how the US behaves toward the peninsula. If not specified as a core interest, the peninsula a treated as a testing ground for whether Russian interests in the Asia-Pacific are respected.13 The argument is unmistakable: Russia has a justified grievance. Washington and Seoul are both guilty of marginalizing a power which once held great sway over issues on the peninsula. Respect, as in the case of Russia’s role in Ukraine and the eastern part of Europe, is denied. The shock of being bypassed in the 1990s in diplomacy on North Korea has parallels to the anger over the expansion of NATO and US intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Putin, thus, made his first foray into international politics by stopping in Pyongyang in 2000. When he returned as president in 2012 and, even more, after relations with the US deteriorated in 2014 owing to his aggressive moves in Ukraine, both sides of the peninsula were seen in a more definitive light. Moscow found common cause with Beijing, at least, at the stage of resisting Seoul and Washington.
Moon’s New Northern Policy was viewed as vacuous despite his promises at the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum and his call for “nine bridges” in June 2018. Putin was supposed to visit Seoul in 2020 followed by Moon going to the EEF in an anniversary year. Moscow refused Seoul’s appeals in 2020 on North Korea, only calling for restraint from both sides. Although Moon’s position on North Korea is closer to Russia’s, political ties are limited by Seoul viewing Russia as “secondary,” a “regional” power, and a junior partner of China. Seoul only wants to use Moscow to influence Pyongyang. Seoul seeks to monopolize the right to deal with Pyongyang or, if that fails, to fully isolate the North. It does not respect Russia, conveying negative images, e.g., of crime. If there is no anti-Russian political force and no anti-Korean tendencies in Russia (the Korean Wave raises South Korea’s status), relations should be much better. The alliance with the US and presence of US troops are seen as what Putin calls a “deficit of sovereignty.” The American factor is seen as the only source of discord. Moscow could help in case of deepening dependence on China or the United States.14
Russians breathed a sigh of relief when Moon’s overtures to Kim Jong-un coupled with Trump’s diplomacy failed. If denuclearization had proceeded with tensions lowered, Russia would see itself as marginalized without an economic vertical axis from its Far East or a multilateral plan for Northeast Asian security. While China may emerge as the biggest beneficiary of the impasse, Russia counts on North Korea’s wariness toward China and South Korea’s preference for some other country to keep the North from complete dependence on China. Biden’s moves may drive Kim Jong-un for a time toward more autarchy and also need for China, but Russia is thinking one step ahead. It is not pleased with South Korea’s policies and worries that a conservative would do more damage, but it counts on Kim Jong-un to rescue its plans for three main outcomes: Russia having a major role in maneuvering over: (1) the future of the whole peninsula; (2) a north-south economic axis to prevent Chinese domination; and (3) a multilateral security framework weakening US alliances and somehow escaping Sinocentrism.
Looking back, Russia values Soviet support for North Korea, as opposed to the disdain toward the Soviet period shown in the 1990s (aided by Western propaganda and liberals). Many authors point to the North’s strategic location, economic potential, and value as a source of labor for the Russian economy. It is assumed that North Korea would be wary of China and South Korea, making Russia its ideal partner—if economic forces could only be developed through the recognition South Korean of Russia’s true affinity.
A turning point for Moscow was reached in 2019-20 with three developments: (1) the shift of China to full hostility toward the US, similar to Russia’s thinking: (2) the leap in Sino-Russian relations, not only as one side eyed Taiwan and the other Ukraine with urgency, but also with joint responses toward North Korea; and (3) the tightening of Sino-DPRK relations. “A significant marker was a 2020 speech by Xi Jinping celebrating the anniversary of the sending of Chinese People’s Volunteers to the DPRK in order to help a neighboring country and contain American aggression. Xi explained that in the face of aggression, the Chinese people will not buckle at the sight of an aggressor, and their backs will not bend. That war taught the Chinese to speak with the aggressor only in the language they understand.” Little changed to 2022.
The Ukraine War and the Korean Peninsula
By 2021, after the stalemate in US-North Korean relations and the diplomatic pause due to the pandemic, Russia prepared to renew its support for North Korea in light of three factors: (1) further deterioration in Russo-US relations; (2) deepening tensions between North Korea and the US; and (3) worsening Sino-US relations. A term used for the new environment was “confrontational stability.” Yet, that thinking preceded the Ukraine war. The anticipated cold war in Asia assumed a balance of interests, however tense. In the assumed circumstances, there would be de facto recognition of the nuclear status of the DPRK, but not yet recognition of a “concert of powers” in East Asia since North Korea would insist on autonomy and the US, on its right to interfere on the peninsula. A “zone of turbulence” would threaten peace, but nuclear deterrence and the will of Russia and China would prevent a big war, Prior to the Ukraine war, Russia had prepared for confrontation in Northeast Asia.
Ukraine is considered by Putin to lack sovereignty and to be an inseparable part of Moscow’s realm. The Korean Peninsula has no such standing, which would give Russians a reason to infringe on its independence. Yet, Putin’s narrative combines sovereign rights with spheres of influence. Fundamental to his logic is a defense of the geopolitical order established as a result of WWII. In Europe, that stands in opposition to NATO expansion to the east, infringing on states that came under Moscow’s sway in 1945. In Asia it is visible in hardened Russian rhetoric toward Japan, as if claims to disputed islands call into question inviolable outcomes in 1945. It is also prominent in publications about the Korean Peninsula. Russia has special prerogatives.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, to which South Korea responded along with other US allies with sanctions, sharply accelerated the downward spiral in ROK-Russian relations. Weeks later, Yoon Suk-yeol’s election brought a clear tilt in foreign policy toward the United States, spelling an even more definite end to the 35-year record of “Nordpolitik” and subsequent overtures to the Kremlin. If there had been no war in Ukraine, the chances were low that Yoon’s conservative worldview coupled with Sino-Russian coordination and support for North Korea would have allowed for another reiteration of outreach to Moscow. Nonetheless, the emphatic nature of how the image of cooperation collapsed in the first months of 2022 offered proof that there was little substance behind the earlier façade or real hope left for a reversal.
The Ukraine war confirmed the “unfriendly” label for South Korea already apparent. If the repeated overtures of Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in had tempered thinking along with some satisfaction over economic ties, these positive images were swept away. In a polarized world, South Korea was on the opposite side. The fact that the war tightened Russian ties to China and bolstered North Korea’s image solidified the line-up in Northeast Asia, as Yoon’s impending presidency made the case for bipolarity even stronger.
Parallels between Russian Thinking on South Korea and Japan
Except for about one year in 2015-16, ROK-Japanese relations were continuously troubled over the decade of Russia’s “Turn to the East.” Opportunities seemed to abound for Moscow to play on the differences to try to drive a wedge between the two US allies., given that the leaders of both were eager to boost bilateral relations. Instead, similarities in the chronology of ups and downs in Russia’s ties to them point to other factors determining its policies. A comparison can be instructive for grasping the forces behind Putin’s evolving thinking toward East Asia unfavorable to the two US allies.
In 2013, Russian optimism about multipolarity peaked, visible in warmth shown to both Park Geun-hye and Abe Shinzo. If this is usually attributed separately to the overtures coming from these leaders, as if they were acting without regard for the welcoming posture of Putin, the overlap was not coincidental. Putin recognized Abe’s quest for a breakthrough with Russia—his family’s destiny—before Abe took office and lured him with the appeal for a breakthrough in bilateral relations on the basis of a “hikiwake” solution or a draw in judo. Likewise, Park’s intention to break from Lee Myung-bak’s troubled relationship with Russia was obvious from the start, and with diplomacy with the new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a near standstill, encouraging Park made sense. The “Turn to the East” prioritized the development of the Russian Far East through capital infusions and spoke of the policy as a pathway to multipolarity in Asia. It was Moscow that first caused a spike in optimism that past rifts would be overcome and then thwarted Abe and Park as it focused mainly on China.
Both countries had tried to allay Russian concerns that they were part of the US-led coalition to punish it for its aggression in Ukraine, insisting in Seoul that it had not joined the sanctions and in Tokyo that it, as a member of the G7, had dome the minimum possible. Moreover, both argued that a clear separation must be made between Russia in Europe and in Asia, Although Russians found it convenient to repeat these arguments, as if Moscow had driven a wedge in US alliances and could proceed as planned with multipolarity in the “Turn to the East,” a different line of reasoning soon prevailed. Moscow was turning more decisively to China and North Korea with more hostility to the United States, and US allies could not deliver on their promises due to adherence to the sanctions and no sovereignty. In 2016 Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD confirmed his judgment. If there was no comparable trigger for blaming Tokyo, Russia’s tone had changed, and the December Putin visit to Japan, for which Abe had raised hopes and Japanese media had waxed optimistic about a breakthrough, proved to be a failure. Upswing and downturn followed the same timeline in both states.
The situation for Russia in Tokyo and Seoul suddenly brightened by early 2017. In May 2016, Abe defied Obama by meeting Putin in Sochi and reinvigorating the pursuit of a breakthrough, which had slowed two years earlier. And in May 2017, Moon Jae-in assumed the presidency in Seoul, flaunting a more welcoming stance toward North Korea at odds with the US position and promising new overtures to Moscow. If Moscow’s primary orientation was to Beijing and to resume efforts to engage Pyongyang, it could not pass these new opportunities with the US allies. Yet, Moscow’s focus in 2017 centered on Beijing and Pyongyang, not on these US allies.
Abe and Moon downplayed Russia’s toughening posture, the latter blaming it on Park’s failed policies. By 2018, each had launched new initiatives to woo Putin against all odds. The “New Northern Policy” was a repackaging of Park’s “Eurasian Initiative,” and in 2018 in his diplomacy with Kim Jong-un he had appeared to raise Russian hopes for trilateral economic projects. Yet, Russia was deeply skeptical that it would succeed, putting much more stock in Kim’s summits with Xi Jinping for hardening his posture toward both Moon and Donald Trump. Moon’s effort to enlist Putin’s support paled before Putin’s quest for Kim to meet him in Russia, raising Putin’s stature as a player in this diplomacy. Abe fully acceded to the return of just the two small islands in his 2018 Singapore summit with Putin, rekindling Japanese hopes, but Russian interpretations after its constitutional amendment banning the transfer of any territory assumed he was now inclined to sign a peace treaty without any territorial deal, as it had sought. Talks with Abe, as with Moon, had reached a dead-end. Russian commentators treated their successors as betraying the upbeat attitudes that Russia has slighted.
Four forces stand out as we reflect on the decade as a whole. First, there is history, notably the parallel interpretations of the victory in WWII and the establishment by Russia of North Korea and the Korean War. Second, there is a quest for Russian influence in shaping the future of Northeast Asia in keeping with memories of the Soviet sphere of influence. Third, Putin is driven by antipathy to “color revolutions” or to the spread of democracy and other “universal values” in opposition to the identity he was determined to preserve in Russia and wherever else possible. Finally, having decided early that a “new cold war” was under way, it was essential for Putin to find the desired balance between China and North Korea on one side and Japan and South Korea on the other without losing sight of strong animus to the United States, which was blamed for forcing the revival of a cold war. In Putin’s thinking, the value of Seoul and Tokyo kept sinking through the decade.
In both Moscow and Seoul, hopes were raised in the 1990s for South Korea to play a positive role in Russia’s post-Cold War transition, and they lingered until 2022 despite mounting evidence that expectations were not being met. There were growing signs of unrequited aspirations, as overtures to Moscow failed to draw much interest. The turning point had been reached by 2010, when Moscow failed to side with Seoul on the Cheonan sinking, although some may trace it back to 2000, when Putin launched his foreign policy by visiting North Korea. Others may point to 2004, when Russia chose to defer to China in the Six-Party Talks after taking a more independent stance in 2003. Whichever date one chooses as the turning point, 2016 stands as the point of no return, due to the Russian reaction to THAAD and cozying up to North Korea. Moscow branded Seoul “unfriendly” in 2022, but felt so earlier.
Leaders in Seoul feigned a view of Russia increasingly at odds with reality. They minimized Russian support for North Korea and ignored what Russians were saying about the problems in ROK-Russian relations. The message delivered from Moscow should have left no doubt that, geopolitically, it sided with North Korea, economically, it put little stock in South Korean relations, and, in identity terms, kinship with Pyongyang trumped that with Seoul. This thinking gave no reason for South Koreans to be optimistic over the years.
Russian diplomacy to the Korean Peninsula was handicapped by three obstinate realities: (1) Pyongyang prioritized Beijing and often appeared to be using Moscow as if could play off its two, long-term backers; (2) Seoul sought to keep Moscow engaged to impact its policy toward Pyongyang, but its ties to Washington were determinative; and (3) Russia’s economic weakness left it with a weak hand, which if used recklessly could result in isolation. Thus, it tried to enlist South Korea in economic triangularity but failed repeatedly.
The crux of the problem was the gap between South Korean and Russian thinking on geopolitics, economics, and national identity. Seoul championed reconciliation. It sought a community to promote security, addressing North Korea through joint guarantees. Although anchoring its security in the ROK-US alliance, it was amenable to some regional security understanding. Yet, Moscow made it clear in prioritizing the threat from the US and its alliances over that from North Korea that geopolitics drove it against Seoul, not toward finding common ground over threats to peace coming from Pyongyang. The attacks by the North in 2010, the THAAD deployment of 2016, and the Hanoi summit of 2019 exposed this wide gap. Russian writings left no ambiguity that South Korea is on the adversarial side and opposed to the geopolitical architecture deemed essential for Russia’s critical national security interests.
Economics long appeared to be the driving force of improved Russo-ROK relations. It would be the pathway to revitalization of the Russian Far East, a priority for Putin. It would help to modernize the Russian economy, for which the intermediate level of South Korean technology, compared to the US and Japan, drew special praise. In the transformation of North Korea, the two states to its north and south were seen as ideally suited to work together, whether on railroad lines, electricity grids, oil and gas pipelines, or transit trade in coal and other commodities. However, in the 2010s, the tone in publications shifted from optimism about such prospects to blame for Seoul’s supposed failure to live up to its promises. A minority viewpoint that Moscow had not created an attractive environment for foreign investment faded away.
Most telling about the hardening of Russian thinking toward both parts of the peninsula was coverage of national identity in all of its dimensions. Rejecting narratives that exposed the horrendous reality of North Korea in favor of simplistic assertions that the country in the past and present is just rationally responding to threats, Russians removed any identity gap from discussion of Russo-DPRK relations. Indeed, rhetoric invoked an historic bond between nations, implying identity overlap. As for South Korea, it never enjoyed the allure Japan was gaining in the 1980s for culture, consumer electronics, and eventually cuisine. There was no “Korea wave” in the 2000s-2010s, as had occurred in parts of Asia. By the late 2010s, it was being defined as a US ally unsympathetic to Russia. The shadow of the Korean War had reappeared.
Putin’s war in Ukraine put an exclamation mark on two decades of leaning to Pyongyang over Seoul. Russian reasoning denounced US alliances whether in Europe or Asia. Economic avenues were shuttered, but Russia insisted that it could cope, leaving no openings for Seoul as well as others. Finally, the national identity divide hardened. No room was left for affinity with South Korea, while North Korea gained more sympathy. Putin’s “Turn to the East” had run its full course: It was to China and North Korea, i.e., to the past.
* This article draws heavily on Country Report: Russia and other articles in The Asan Forum, which summarize and interpret Russian thinking on the Korean Peninsula over a decade.
1. Gilbert Rozman, “The Russo-U.S. National Identity Gap and the Indo-Pacific in 2021,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: Questioning the Pandemic’s Impact on the Indo-Pacific: Geopolitical Gamechanger? Force for Deepening National Identity Clashes? Cause of Shifting Supply Chains? (Washington, D.C.: Korea Economic Institute, 202(1).
2. Alexander Lukin, Pivot to Asia: Russia’s Foreign Policy Enters the 21st Century (New Delhi: Vii Books, India 2016).
3. The book that best encapsulates Russian thinking is A.V. Torkunov, G.D. Toloraya, I.V. D’iachkov, Sovremennaia Koreia: metamorfozy turbulentykh let (2008-2020) (Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 202(1).
4. “Russia Designates S. Korea as an ‘Unfriendly’ Nation,” Yonhap, March 7, 2022.
5. Georgy Toloraya, “Korea: A Bone of Contention or a Chance for Cooperation: A View from Russia,” The Asan Forum, February 19, 2019. Also see Gilbert Rozman, “A Russian Perspective on the Tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” The Asan Forum, February 15, 2021.
6. See “Country Report: Russia,” The Asan Forum, September 16, 2013; and Alexander Lukin, “Russian Strategic Thinking Regarding North Korea,” The Asan Forum, September 2013.
7. Gilbert Rozman, “Ex-ambassadors to Seoul Advise It to Change,” The Asan Forum, April 7, 2016. Also see Gilbert Rozman, “Russian Authors on the Korean Peninsula and on Japan in Joint Publications,” The Asan Forum, December 23, 2015.
8. Serghei Golunov, “Russia’s Korean Policy since 2012: New Hopes, Achievements, and Disappointments,” The Asan Forum, August 3, 2016.
9. Gilbert Rozman, “North Korea’s Place in Sino-Russian Relations and Identities,” The Asan Forum, December 23, 2015; Hirose Yoko, “Russia’s North Korea Policy: The Logic and Dilemma of Assisting North Korea,” The Asan Forum, December 8, 2017.
10. Gilbert Rozman, “The Eastern Economic Forum September 2017: What to Make of It?” The Asan Forum, October 23, 2017.
11. Artyom Lukin, “Russian Commentary on South Korea in 2019,” The Asan Forum, December 31, 2019.
12. Asia Risk Research Center, April 8, 2021.
13. A.V. Torkunov, G.D. Toloraya, I.V. D’iachkov, Sovremennaia Koreia, Ch. 15, pp. 323-55.
14. This section and some others are taken from Gilbert Rozman, “A Russian Perspective on the Tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” The Asan Forum, February 15, 2021, which drew on the A.V. Torkunov, G.D. Toloraya, I.V. D’iachkov, Sovremennaia Koreia, especially on Ch. 17, pp. 376-413.