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The Tilting of Russia’s North Korea-South Korea Policy Balance Has Accelerated


Li Min, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, provides an overview of Russia’s shifting relations with North and South Korea, pointing to increasingly close ties between Moscow and Pyongyang. Conversely, Li suggests, Russia’s previously strong relations with South Korea have deteriorated since its invasion of Ukraine and Seoul’s support for Kyiv. Despite these trends, in Li’s analysis it is unlikely that Russia will completely abandon its relationship with South Korea, just as its burgeoning trade partnership with North Korea has its limits.

Key takeaways
  • Li Min, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, suggests Russia’s ties with North Korea have warmed in recent years, citing an increase in high-level bilateral visits as evidence of this trend.
  • While suggesting the relationship has room for growth, Li highlights potential bottlenecks to deeper Russia-North Korea ties, including weak complementarity between the two economies, a relatively limited trade base, and limits to further commercial interdependence posed by UN sanctions on North Korea.
  • While Russia previously had relatively strong trade and diplomatic ties with South Korea, Li suggests that the war in Ukraine has proved a turning point, with Moscow-Seoul relations deteriorating considerably. Li attributes this deterioration to Seoul’s support of Ukraine, with direct shipments of dual-use goods and indirect provision of artillery shells by way of the United States and Poland, as well as to Seoul’s dissatisfaction over tightening Russia-North Korea relations.
  • Despite these trends, Li argues, Russia-South Korea ties are unlikely to “tear apart,” as relations prior to the Ukraine war were stable and relatively positive, and Russia still values partnership with South Korea on trade and technology.

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A tilting of Russia’s Korea Peninsula policy balance has occurred, but this tilting is more of a dynamic adjustment in the context of a foreign relations crisis, and not yet a complete landing of one side of the scales. Whether it is Russia-North Korea or Russia-South Korea relations, there is still much room for change, and there are certain internal and peripheral stabilizing factors at work. It should also be noted that “China-Russia coordination” is no doubt one such stabilizing factor, and future peace and stability on the Peninsula cannot be assured and sustained without the participation of all parties directly concerned.


For more than 30 years after the end of the Cold War, Russia’s policy on the Korean Peninsula was relatively balanced, maintaining a traditionally friendly relationship with North Korea, but also carrying out various forms of economic, trade, scientific, and technological cooperation with South Korea. Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in 2022, however, Russia’s Peninsula policy has been adjusted rapidly. Its relations with North Korea and South Korea have been warm on one hand and cold on the other, and are increasingly divergent.


The Russia-North Korea relationship has clearly warmed


North Korea is Russia’s traditional partner in Northeast Asia, and is also an important fulcrum for Russia to maintain influence in Northeast Asia. After the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, North Korea firmly “stood by Russia,” and Russia-North Korea relations began to “go from good to better.”


As North Korea gradually lifted its COVID-19 epidemic lockdown, economic and people-to-people exchanges between Russia and North Korea resumed. By the end of 2022, Russia had resumed exports of refined petroleum products to North Korea. A report submitted by the Russian government to the United Nations shows that Russia exported 67,300 barrels of refined petroleum products to North Korea between December 2022 and April 2023. In terms of food trade, Russia exported 2,800 tons of corn to North Korea in March 2023, which was the first time Russia had exported grain to North Korea since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic. In April 2023, Russia’s Kuzbass region exported another 1,280 tons of wheat flour to North Korea. In terms of logistics, the North Korean port of Rajin resumed customs clearance operations for Russian imports and exports in 2023. In terms of people-to-people exchanges, in August 2023 North Korea’s Air Koryo resumed its Vladivostok-Pyongyang route, which had been grounded for three and a half years.


The real highlight of Russian-North Korean relations in 2023 was the exchange of high-level visits. In July, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to North Korea to participate in the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, kicking off a string of high-level interactions between the two countries. In September, Kim Jong-un, General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and Chairman of the State Council, visited Russia, where he toured the Vostochny Cosmodrome, the Gagarin aircraft plant, Russia’s Pacific Fleet base, and other important sites, and met with President Putin. During the meeting, Kim Jong-un emphasized that “it is the consistent position of North Korea to give top priority to North Korea-Russia relations.” In conjunction with the visit, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun declared that “the traditional friendly relationship between North Korea and Russia is being further elevated and developed into an unbreakable comrades-in-arms relationship and a strategic relationship on a hundred-year plan.”


After the heads-of-state meeting set the general direction, Russia-North Korea cooperation entered the concrete consultation stage. First came a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to North Korea in October 2023. The two sides had an in-depth exchange of views on joint responses to problems on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia, and discussed practical directions and ways in which to promote bilateral cooperation between the two countries in economic, cultural, and science and technology (S&T) fields. In November, the Russian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Alexander Kozlov, visited North Korea to attend the 10th meeting of the Russian-North Korean Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation, and discussed strengthening trade, exploration of natural resources, and sports and cultural exchanges. In December, Oleg Kozhemyako, Governor of Russia’s Primorsky Krai region, visited North Korea, focusing on exchanges and cooperation in tourism, culture, and sports.


Under the impetus of these high-level interactions, Russia-North Korea cooperation is expected to move from the consultation stage to the implementation stage in 2024, thereby gaining an all-round boost. Putin is likely to make a return visit to North Korea in 2024. If realized, it would be his second visit 24 years after the first, and would be of great significance for the two countries’ relationship.


Russia-South Korea relations have cooled dramatically


Before the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, the Russia-South Korea relationship presented a favorable picture. According to Russian statistics, trade between the two countries reached US$29.882 billion in 2021, making South Korea Russia’s eighth-largest trading partner overall and its second-largest in the Asia-Pacific region. Having overcome the impact of the pandemic between 2020 and 2021, Russia and South Korea took the “Year of Russian-Korean Exchange” as an opportunity to organize more than 200 online and offline exchange events. In terms of scientific and technological cooperation, South Korea’s “Naro” rocket, successfully launched in January 2013, was powered by an RD-151 engine supplied by the Russian company NPO Energomash, and its launch pad was built using drawings brought in from Russia.


The Ukraine crisis has become a turning point in Russia-South Korea relations. The Yoon Suk Yeol administration has engaged in so-called “values diplomacy,” following the lead of the United States and the West in imposing sanctions against Russia and providing aid to Ukraine. By December 2023, South Korea had placed 1,159 products on its “export control” list against Russia, including most industrial goods with potential for “military use.” In July 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol made an unannounced visit to Ukraine, signaling that his country would maintain a consistent position with the United States and the West on hot-button international issues. South Korea’s assistance to Ukraine is not limited to humanitarian aid such as medicines, but also includes non-lethal military goods such as bulletproof helmets, bulletproof vests, gas masks, and military rations. In addition, South Korean exports of large quantities of arms to Poland and artillery shells to the United States looks suspiciously like a roundabout way of providing military aid to Ukraine. The Washington Post reported in December 2023 that South Korea may have indirectly supplied more artillery shells to Ukraine than all European countries combined. Vladimir Putin publicly criticized South Korea by name at the October 2022 Valdai Discussion Club meeting, warning that if South Korea supplied Ukraine with weapons and ammunition, it would cause a “complete rupture” in Russia-South Korea relations.


At the same time that Russia was criticizing South Korea’s military assistance to Ukraine, South Korea also seized on the Ukraine issue to strongly denounce Russia and North Korea’s “military cooperation” in violation of relevant United Nations resolutions. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service claimed that North Korea had supplied Russia with more than one million artillery shells between August and October 2023, providing the Russian army enough for more than two months of use. The South Korean government has expressed its dissatisfaction with Russian-North Korean cooperation through speeches at the UN General Assembly, summoning the Russian ambassador to South Korea, and issuing joint statements with the United States, Japan, and other countries, further worsening the political relationship between Russia and South Korea.


Russia-South Korea “economic decoupling” is also underway. According to the Korea International Trade Association (KITA), trade between Russia and South Korea dropped 22.6% to US$21.15 billion in 2022. In 2021, South Korea’s trade with Russia was more than double India’s trade with Russia, but a year later it was overtaken by India. A Yale University survey of more than 1,000 major multinationals worldwide in the first half of 2023 showed that well-known Korean companies such as Samsung, Hyundai, Korean Air, LG, and HMM had all ceased most of their business in Russia, with only [steel producer] POSCO maintaining basic day-to-day operations there. In December 2023, South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Group officially sold its St. Petersburg plant, which was commissioned in 2011, to a Russian consortium at a low price. The factory had been a milestone in Russia-South Korea economic cooperation.


Russia’s Peninsula Policy Adjustment Has Left Some Room


Although there has been a clear divergence in Russia’s relations with the North and South of the Korean Peninsula, this does not mean that its Peninsula policy will go to extremes. Both Russia-North Korea relations, which are flourishing, and Russia-South Korea relations, which are deteriorating, have their own “ceilings” and room for maneuver.


The Russia-North Korea relationship has more room for growth, but it also has bottlenecks. On one hand, the “base” of Russia-North Korea cooperation is relatively low, and it is difficult to achieve significant scale in the short term. In the economic sphere in particular, weak complementarity between the two countries has long been a problem. Even in 2005, when cooperation between the two countries was at a 30-year peak, the trade volume was only $228 million. According to a statement by Russian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Kozlov during his visit to North Korea in November 2023, trade between Russia and North Korea since the beginning of 2023 has exceeded US$28 million. This figure is not only far below the peak level of trade between the two countries, but is also still below the pre-pandemic level.


Russia-North Korea cooperation can be mutually beneficial, but most areas are also constrained by the framework of UN sanctions against North Korea. Russia has long faced labor shortages, and the Ukraine crisis has exacerbated this persistent problem. The Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences estimates that Russia had a labor shortage of 4.8 million people in 2023. North Korea has a high-quality and disciplined labor force, which could help Russia relieve its urgent problems to a certain extent. North Korea hopes to use Russia’s assistance to break through the technical bottlenecks in its own economy and defense construction. However, both “overseas labor” and technical cooperation fall under the UN sanctions against North Korea. If Russia wants to deepen its cooperation with North Korea, it will need to flexibly interpret the rules to a certain extent, but it will also have some apprehensions. Putin said during Kim Jong-un’s visit to Russia that “Russia and North Korea can also develop a lot of cooperation within the framework of the UN sanctions against North Korea.”


It would be difficult to completely “tear apart” the Russia-South Korea relationship. Unlike Russia-Japan relations, there is no overly problematic historical conflict between Russia and South Korea, and the current predicament is more the result of the Ukraine crisis, an “external problem.” Russia still values South Korea’s capital and technology, viewing it as a potential option for diversifying its foreign cooperation. For South Korea, leaving the Russian market is also a step taken with extreme reluctance. Successive South Korean governments have all been interested in utilizing the so-called “northern space,” and South Korean companies have accumulated considerable experience in the Russian market over a long period, with South Korean brands such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai enjoying a high degree of acceptance among Russian consumers. Taking automobiles as an example, Hyundai Kia Automotive Group sold over 370,000 vehicles in Russia in 2021, putting it in first place among foreign brands, and a close second to the Russian national brand Lada. The South Korean business community views the “decoupling” of the Russian and South Korean economies with regret and trepidation. Out of reluctance to leave the Russian market, Hyundai Motor Company kept a two-year buy-back clause when it transferred its St. Petersburg plant.


Against this backdrop, the Russian and South Korean governments are also making efforts to manage their differences, leaving room for improving relations in the future. The 2023 version of South Korea’s National Security Strategy report states that it will “manage the ROK-Russia relationship in a stable manner guided by international norms.” This is a clear deterioration from the previous administration’s statement that it would “enhance mutually beneficial and substantive cooperation with Russia and strengthen mutual trust,” but it still shows that South Korea’s policy toward Russia is based on considerations of “stability.” The two heads of state have also maintained courteous interactions, such as when Putin sent a message of condolence to Yoon Suk Yeol following the Itaewon crowd crush incident in Seoul toward the end of 2022. Yoon Suk Yeol also sent a letter to Putin on June 12, 2023, Russia’s National Day, expressing his intention to “continue engaging in constructive cooperation with Russia.” Right after Yoon’s visit to Ukraine, then-Foreign Minister Park Jin emphasized that “the ROK government is committed to the stable management of the ROK-Russia relationship.” In December 2023, the newly appointed Russian ambassador to South Korea, Georgy Zinoviev, described South Korea as “one of the friendliest among the unfriendly countries,” noting that “there have been no political problems or frictions between the two countries in the three decades since the establishment of diplomatic relations.”


Overall, Russia’s Peninsula policy balance has tilted, but this tilt is more like a dynamic adjustment in a foreign relations crisis, and not yet a complete landing of one side of the scales. Whether it is Russia-North Korea relations or Russia-South Korea relations, there is still much room for change, and there are certain internal and peripheral stabilizing factors at work. It should also be noted that “China-Russia coordination” is no doubt one such stabilizing factor, and future peace and stability on the Peninsula cannot be assured and sustained without the participation of all parties directly concerned. In April and June 2023, Liu Xiaoming, Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Korean Peninsula Affairs, and Andrei Rudenko, Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, held consultations in Moscow and Beijing, respectively, and exchanged in-depth views on the Korean Peninsula issue. The two sides said that China and Russia will continue to maintain close communication and coordination and will jointly promote the process of political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue. At the same time, the two countries reaffirmed their agreement on such directional issues as maintaining peace and stability on the Peninsula, achieving denuclearization of the Peninsula, and establishing a Peninsular peace mechanism.


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Cite This Page

李旻 (Li Min). "The Tilting of Russia's North Korea-South Korea Policy Balance Has Accelerated [在朝韩之间,俄罗斯的政策天平加速倾斜]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in World Affairs [世界知识], February 8, 2024

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