With America’s stalled progress in achieving the denuclearisation of North Korea, on a phone call this Friday, Donald Trump urged Vladimir Putin to put more pressure on Kim Jong Un. By Saturday morning, North Korea fired several short-range projectiles that crashed into the Sea of Japan, a clear signal to the United States. With North Korea and Russia both under the yoke of crippling international sanctions, last month’s brief Putin-Kim summit in Vladivostok appears to have had little impact on North Korean policy. China is generally considered to wield the most influence over North Korea, so what exactly is Russia’s role?
Russia’s direct relations with North Korea have been largely ignored in the West. The general belief has been that the prime influence in North Korean economic and political affairs is that of its large northern neighbour, China, and that Russia is primarily interested in political and diplomatic influence and exchanges in conferences like the Six-Party talks.
These talks, now stalled, were designed to find a solution to the challenges presented by North Korea’s nuclear program and its development of ICBMs. Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have now agreed to try and revive them.
Despite two well-publicised meetings between President Trump and Kim, there has not been a lot of progress in resolving the U.S. demand for the total denuclearisation of North Korea, nor in reducing or eliminating the severe restrictions enforced against North Korea by the U.S. and some of its allies.
On 21 September 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order (EO) 13810 which broadly expanded sanctions against North Korea. North Korea has been under international sanctions since the late 1950s, in 1988 it was added to the U.S. list of state-sponsors of terrorism, and in 2006 additional sanctions were imposed by the UN. The 2017 EO significantly expanded the U.S. Treasury’s authorities to cut from its financial system or freeze assets of any companies, businesses, organizations, and individuals trading in goods, services, or technology with North Korea. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declared that, “Foreign financial institutions are now on notice that, going forward, they can choose to do business with the United States or with North Korea, but not both.”
Under these sanctions, any aircraft or ship entering the DPRK is banned for 180 days from entering the U.S. This same restriction also applies to ships which conduct ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean vessels. Upon the U.S. announcement, China’s central bank reportedly ordered banks to strictly implement UN sanctions against North Korea amid U.S. concerns that Beijing had not been tough enough over North Korea’s repeated nuclear tests.
On April 25, President Putin and Kim Jong Un conducted unstructured discussions in the Eastern Russian port city of Vladivostok about how to proceed further in getting these sanctions reduced or removed. Considering this is a subject near and dear to the heart of Russians, suffering similar sanctions, there was much to be gained, or lost.
This Saturday, just hours after a phone call in which President Trump urged Putin to put more pressure on North Korea, North Korea conducted a missile test firing several short range projectiles that flew up to 200 kilometers before crashing into the Sea of Japan. Three weapon systems were tested that included an unidentified Short-Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM), and 240mm and 300mm Multiple Rocket Launchers (MRL).
The test was a clear message to the United States.
Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 4, 2019
Russia’s influence on North Korea?
Russia has more extensive economic influence on North Korea than is often cited.
Before the economic advance of China after its embrace of proto-capitalism, Russia was the main foreign partner of North Korea. In the 1970s and 1980s the Soviet Union accounted for up to 50% of North Korea’s foreign trade. Today, Russia is reportedly now responsible for a mere 1.2% of the North’s external trade. While Russia is still the DPRK’s second largest trading partner, albeit a very distant second, China holds the unassailable top position with 92.5%.
According to the Federal Customs Service of Russia, as reported by Artyom Lukin and Lyudmila Zakharova in Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), “in 2016, bilateral turnover stood at $76.8 million. North Korean exports ($8.8 million) included frozen fish (24.6%), parts and accessories for tractors (22.3%), articles of apparel and clothing accessories (16%), and wind musical instruments (12.4%). Russian exports ($68 million) consisted mainly of bituminous coal (75%), lignite (5%), petroleum oils and gas (4%), as well as wheat (5%), and frozen fish and crustaceans (3%).”
While China has historically been the main supplier of bituminous coal to North Korea – a critical raw material in smelting iron ore – since 2015, North Korea received most of its coal imports from Russia (85% in 2015 and 75% in 2016). While North Korea “runs a chronic deficit in bilateral trade with Russia,” this is compensated somewhat by other economic exchanges such as the exportation to Russia of North Korean labour.
There is also considerable evidence that Russia actually exports a great deal more to North Korea via shipments made through third parties, primarily China. A large volume of petroleum products are shipped from China to North Korea, but the origin of the oil and refined products is Russia.
According to Russia’s Ministry for Far East Development, up to one third of China’s exports to North Korea (roughly $900 million in 2015) was actually made up of Russian-originated goods. This indirect trade is mostly constituted by petroleum products. It is estimated that China exports about 500,000 metric tons of crude oil and 270,000 tons of oil products to North Korea each year while Russian-originated oil supplies to the DPRK, mostly gasoline and diesel fuel, are estimated to be within the range of 200,000-300,000 tons per year, which amounts to roughly $200-300 million in the current prices. (“As U.S. and China find common ground on North Korea, is Russia the wild card?”).
While Chinese oil deliveries to North Korea are made through the state-owned pipeline, Russians supply petroleum products brought to Primorskiy Krai by the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline’s main terminal near Nakhodka and shipped on small North Korean tankers from Nakhodka, Slavyanka, Vostochny and Vladivostok.
Deliveries by small tankers have not always been from Russian ports. Along with these port pickups there are numbers of North Korean registered tankers loading at sea from larger vessels operated by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and private Russian corporations engaged in sanctions busting.
In March 2019, a North Korea-flagged tanker was caught violating UN sanctions as it engaged a ship-to-ship transfer of fuel with an unidentified vessel. The North Korea-flagged tanker ‘Saebyol’, which was transmitting on ship tracking systems as a fishing boat, was spotted alongside a vessel of unknown nationality on the high seas, conducting a prohibited ship-to-ship transfer. The illicit operation was documented by a Royal Navy frigate which was operating in the East China Sea in cooperation with Japan, enforcing the UN sanctions against North Korea.
Russia’s North Korea Trade Routes
In an attempt to deal with its economic plight, North Korea established a number of trade zones to assist in the expansion of its international trade. These are spread among three regions of the country. The most advanced is the Rason Special Economic Zone, earlier called the Rajin-Sonbong Economic Special Zone. Established in 1992 near Rason to promote economic growth through foreign investment, shipping is conducted through the port of Rajin, a warm-water port near the border with China and Russia. It is being expanded with new energy supplies from China and fuel deliveries from Vladivostok in Russia.
Although rail is the easiest link for this region the rail system to nearby Russia has suffered from a major impediment. There are significant variations in track infrastructure and rail connections and facilities vary considerably in size and capabilities.
For example, Korean rail lines are Standard gauge rails of 1,435 mm (4 ft. 8 1/2 in), the same as for China, while the Russian gauge is 1520 mm (4 ft. 11 27⁄32 in). In order to load railcars in North Korea for onward shipment to Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the carriages must be lifted at a crossing near the Tumen River bridge (at a crossing that consists of the Korean-Russian Friendship Bridge, Tumangang railyard and Khasan railyard), and placed on Russian bogies for their onward journey on Russian tracks. Currently, the Tumangang facilities remain active year-round.
The same is true in the other direction. Since 2013 the line over the Tumen River to Rajin has been rebuilt with dual gauge track, so that standard gauge and Russian broad gauge trains from the Russian Khasan can access the port of Rajin. A Russian railway from Khasan in Siberia across the border to Rason began operations in 2014. Shipments have been steadily increasing ever since. Russia plans on bringing more than 1 million tons of coal through here. The appeal of Rason to Russia is simple: it’s a gateway to Chinese markets.
Transhipments of coal through the North aren’t banned under UN sanctions, and it’s far cheaper to transit Rason than to get coal to China using other routes or means. Russian and Chinese cargo ships are used because the North doesn’t have any ships built for that purpose that are big enough.
Now there are four new ferries plying the Russian-Korean route as it is cheaper than trying to use rail. The ferry service will move up to 200 passengers and 1,000 tonnes of cargo six times a month between North Korea and the Russian port of Vladivostok. There has also been a recent steady flow of oil tanker traffic from Vladivostok into North Korean east coast ports.
Why Kim Needs Russia
During the period when Kim enjoyed a so-called “love fest” with President Trump, China was as accommodating to North Korea as possible. As a price for its assistance, China demanded a series of reforms in North Korea; reforms which didn’t take place or were suspended.
In March 2019, North Korea resumed work on nuclear and missile facilities. Worse, greater scrutiny of satellite photos revealed additional nuclear and missile development sites that North Korea never admitted it had. America, and its allies (South Korea and Japan) now have more reason not to trust North Korea.
This distrust has made it more difficult for North Korea to appeal to South Korea for relief from both the U.S. and China, which have been negotiating a new trade deal and the removal of tariffs. North Korea found that it had few options, deciding that its only possible saviour would be Russia, particularly when it came to smuggling.
President Putin was happy to agree to the April 25th meeting with Kim in Vladivostok, yet Russia has very little more it can do to assist. Russia operates under relatively severe international sanctions right now and is attempting to carve a greater role for itself as an arbiter in the Middle East, along with efforts in Venezuela and Africa.
Russia would not benefit by overt actions that could directly help North Korea, only serving to antagonise the West further. Russia will likely continue to expand its trade with North Korea through the new southern transport corridor from Primorsky Krai, it will call for the resumption of activities in the Tumen River Basin, and the resumption of the Six Nation discussions.
These activities are small enough to not raise the level of defiance with China, a growing trade partner. Russia will assist, but not enough to save North Koreans from serious food and other shortages.
At the moment, the U.S. has little to fear from Russia and North Korea working together more closely than before. There is little they can achieve of value, but the possibilities of propaganda campaigns are extensive. As in many other aspects of Russian foreign policy what is actually achieved and celebrated is often far less than the reality. Russia has survived on bluff and bluster for centuries.
Russia operates under relatively severe international sanctions right now and is attempting to carve a greater role for itself as an arbiter in the Middle East, along with efforts in Venezuela and Africa.
North Korea’s Other Trading Partners
For many nations of the world the problems posed by the DPRK’s international pariah status are viewed as an opportunity rather than an impediment. For some nations, a close working relationship with the DPRK has been nurtured for a long period.
In Egypt, for example, there has been a Cairo-Pyongyang axis growing since the days of Nasser when Kim Il Sung sent financial support for the closing of the Suez Canal by Egypt. The DPRK set up an embassy in Egypt in 1961 and offered military and financial support to Egypt in the Six-Day War in 1967 and military supplies to help Egypt and its proxies drive the British out of Aden. In the 1973 war against Israel, Egypt’s senior air force commander, Hosni Mubarak, used North Korean pilots to fly missions in Egyptian aircraft. Mubarak made four visits to Pyongyang from 1983-1990 where he laid the foundation for Egyptian investments in the North Korean economy.
Samual Ramani wrote in The Diplomat that, “The most striking demonstration of Cairo’s willingness to invest in North Korea was Egyptian telecommunications giant Orascom’s establishment of Koryolink, the DPRK’s only 3G mobile phone network, in 2008. This business deal, which was authorized by Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, gave Orascom 300,000 new North Korean customers. This deal highlighted the potential for mutually beneficial economic links between the two countries, and Sawiris’s subsequent visits to Pyongyang facilitated further Egyptian investments in the North Korean economy.”
North Korea has been a critical supplier of military technology to Egypt since the 1970s. In 1975, President Anwar el-Sadat authorized the purchase of Soviet-made Scud-B missiles from the DPRK. The North Korean military responded to Cairo’s missile purchase by technologically assisting Egypt’s Scud-B missile production efforts. These Scud-B missile procurements established long-term technical exchanges between the two nations during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now, with the Iranian progress in producing missiles, Egypt is very anxious to continue to acquire more missile technology from the DPRK which will help it against its main enemy.
Moreover, the indelicate Trump tweet offensive against the Iranian 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the U.S. withdrawal, has made the acquisition of nuclear technology reappear on the technical military horizons of many Middle Eastern States, Egypt among them. Despite U.S. and Russian objections, Egypt has not given up hopes to be a nuclear power. Egypt has continued to refuse to accept comprehensive international inspections of its nuclear energy program.
Egypt is not the only nation in the Middle East with such a fall-back position of engaging with the DPRK if nuclear proliferation becomes an acceptable norm.
In 2015, Abu Dhabi purchased USD $100 million worth of weapons from North Korea to use in the war in Yemen (according to a leaked memo from the US State Department). The deal included a shipment of rockets, machine guns and rifles that were sent to Yemen to support groups loyal to the UAE in the conflict. According to the memo, the US State Department warned Abu Dhabi that North Korea would use the money from its arms deal to finance its nuclear programme.
The UAE’s covert arms purchases from Pyongyang results from Abu Dhabi’s belief that North Korea is a potentially valuable missile system supplier in the world market and should be deterred from selling sophisticated military technology to Iran and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Again, as a result of President Trump’s dissolution of the JCPOA pact with Iran, the UAE and other states in the region are seeking the acquisition of missiles and nuclear technology to counter the expected rush towards competency by Iran, freed of the ICPOA.
From 2007 to 2015, the value of annual trade activities between African states and the DPRK amounted to $216.5 million, higher than the average $90 million recorded from 1998 to 2006. Pyongyang has built arms factories in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Uganda. It has been contracted to construct military sites in Namibia. This relationship with Namibia led to Namibia being cited as a violator of UN sanctions.
Theoretically, Namibia halted relations with the DPRK in 2016 but Namibian newspapers bemoaned the fact that the DPRK technicians are still there. Officially, the Namibian Government announced that it had terminated the services of the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID) and Mansudae Overseas Projects. KOMID, North Korea’s primary arms dealer, was blacklisted by the Security Council in 2009 and described as Pyongyang’s key arms dealer and exporter of equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.
Construction company Mansudae is known for having built several state houses, statues and monuments in Africa. In Namibia, they have already built the national history museum and State House, and are busy with the defence headquarters and the shadowy munitions factory. Namibia has already given over N$1,3 billion to North Korea through various construction projects since 2002.
Police training and leadership-protection courses provided by North Korea have also been popular across the continent, including Benin, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe (best noted for its training of the notorious Fifth Brigade). Pyongyang has also sold ballistic-missile manufacturing lines to Libya, while South Africa intercepted a shipment of weapons from North Korea bound for the Congo in 2009.
The ISS reported in February 2016 that Pyongyang was still exporting ballistic missile-related items to the Middle East and Africa. The DPRK has had a long and profitable relationship with Malaysian traders using the company Glocom, which exports DPRK small arms and communications equipment throughout Central Asia and the Middle East.
The DPRK has extensive relations with African countries; especially Equatorial Guinea, Angola, DR Congo, and Burundi. The DPRK’s relationship with DR Congo also recently sparked an international controversy when a UN report was leaked on May 16, 2016 revealing that Congo had purchased pistols from the DPRK in 2014 and recruited 30 North Korean instructors to work alongside the Congolese police and presidential guard.
The DPRK has also not been restrained from delivering substantial quantities of chemical and biological weapons to countries around the globe. Of particular interest has been the deliveries of chemical and biological agents to Assad’s Syria (in addition to Scuds and surface to air missiles). In a confidential August 2017 report of UN experts to the Security Council, experts reported the delivery of prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms by the DPRK to Syria. The report added that this was because of a log-term contract between Syria and the firm, KOMID.
And in closing … Vladivostok
It is interesting that Putin and Kim held their April talks in Vladivostok. Vladivostok is where, a century ago, 8,000 U.S. soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force, Siberia (AEF in Siberia), were sent to help remove the Czech Legions trapped behind in the Russian Civil War. This is a history not usually taught in U.S. schools.
After the Bolshevik Revolution and the displacement of the Menshevik Government in early 1918, the Russian Civil War had continued across the rest of Russia with the Red Army battling the White Army throughout former imperial Russia. A large military force, the Czech legion, which had been brought in to fight the Red Army was trapped and couldn’t return home.
Meanwhile, the Japanese had stationed 72,000 troops in Siberia and were funding a wild bunch of Cossack guerrillas who tortured, raped, and decapitated innocent Siberians, according to US Army reports. They travelled up and down the Trans-Siberian Railroad in special “Death Trains” underwritten by the Japanese.
The Japanese were also interfering with U.S. business, threatening to confiscate 600,000 tons of U.S. supplies sitting in Vladivostok. As a gesture of neutrality, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the AEF to be sent at once to Vladivostok under the leadership of Major General William S. Graves. The troops landed on the first of September 1918, and were there, not to take sides in the civil war, but to try and rescue the Czech legions and the thousands of German and Austrian prisoners of war.
After taking up their duties patrolling the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Chinese Eastern Railway, they were attacked by all sides. The Red Army attacked them in battles along the Trans-Siberian Railroad; the Red Partisans attacked their encampments; and the Cossacks (pushed by the Japanese) fought the U.S. troops all over the Far East. The Japanese used proxies to try and drive the U.S. out of their headquarters in Vladivostok and their regional headquarters in Khabarovsk.
Despite the kidnappings and executions of American soldiers by the Cossacks and the raids by the Partisans, the Expeditionary Force tried to maintain its neutrality. In the winter of 1919-1920 the White Russian Army was defeated by the Red Army on the Volga Front and the Red Army succeeded in capturing Spassk in the Far East. The war was over and there was an outcry in the U.S. to bring the troops home.
The last troops left Russia on April Fool’s Day 1920.
Dr. Gary K. Busch, for Lima Charlie News
[Edits by Anthony A. LoPresti] [Main image: Photo: Yuri Kadobnov / Pool Photo via AP]
[Subscribe to our newsletter for free and be the first to get Lima Charlie World updates delivered right to your inbox.]
Dr. Busch has had a varied career-as an international trades unionist, an academic, a businessman and a political intelligence consultant. He was a professor and Head of Department at the University of Hawaii and has been a visiting professor at several universities. He was the head of research in international affairs for a major U.S. trade union and Assistant General Secretary of an international union federation. His articles have appeared in the Economist Intelligence Unit, Wall Street Journal, WPROST, Pravda and several other news journals. He is the editor and publisher of the web-based news journal of international relations www.ocnus.net.
Lima Charlie World provides global news, featuring insight & analysis by military veterans, intelligence professionals and foreign policy experts Worldwide.
For up-to-date news, please follow us on twitter at @LimaCharlieNews
- Julian, “Trump issues new sanctions on North Korea and claims China is following”, Guardian 21/9 17.
- Artyom Lukin and Lyudmila Zakharova, “Russia-North Korea Economic Ties: Is There More Than Meets The Eye? “FPRI, 7/10/17.
- “North Korea-Flagged Tanker Busted Violating UN Sanctions, World Maritime News, 8/4/19.
- Samuel Ramani, “The Egypt-North Korea Connection”, Diplomat, August 28, 2017.
- Middle East Monitor, “UAE bought weapons from North Korea for war in Yemen” 20/7/17.
- The Namibian, “Namibia: Sacrificing Ourselves for North Korea’s Gain”, 1/9/17.
- “Korea: Kim Catches A Clue” Strategy Page, March 12, 2019.
- There are several good accounts of the American Occupation of Siberia. Among them are:
R.M. Connaughton, The Republic of the Ushakovka: Admiral Kolchak and the Allied Intervention in Siberia, 1918-1920, Routledge; William S. Graves, America’s Siberian Adventure, Peter Smith, 1941); Betty Miller Unterberger, America’s Siberian Expedition, 1918-1920, Duke University Press
In case you missed it: