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Great Power Status By Hook or By Crook
Moscow Sidles Up to Pyongyang

The Diplomat is running a story which, if it proves to be true, could be quite a big deal. Citing various analyses and news reports, the story notes that Kim Jong-un and the Chinese have been drifting apart lately. But the reason for the drift is the real news: It appears Russia has been actively courting the Norks. We noted earlier this year that Moscow and Pyongyang were getting chummy, signing various trade deals and negotiating debt forgiveness arrangements for the Hermit Kingdom. But the countries have grown even closer since then. Earlier this month,

Russia and North Korea held a session of their “Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation.” At the conclusion, the two sides announced a slew of deals which, if implemented, would mark a substantial increase in their commerce.

What is particularly revealing, as KGS Night Watch noted, is that the details of the agreement strongly suggest that Russia is in effect substituting for the role China currently plays in various sectors in North Korea. “What is striking,” Night Watch noted, “is that the trade and development menu resembles the kinds of projects that the late Chang Song-taek was arranging, but with Chinese investors. Kim Jong Un has decided to make similar arrangements with the Russians.”

Even Russian Far East Development Minister Alexander Galushka said of parts of the agreement: “the North Korean Government has allowed this agreement exclusively for Russian entrepreneurs and that overseas investors, including China, have not enjoyed such benefits to date.”

Working with North Korea makes sense from the Kremlin’s point of view. It makes trouble for the United States. It makes trouble for Japan. It makes trouble for China. Also, it doesn’t cost much money.

Russia’s diplomacy in Pyongyang is probably aimed at China. Though the two giant powers share a common suspicion of the United States, Russia is also not happy about China’s rise. Russia fears a rising China will push Russia aside and even one day reclaim the “lost” territories that the czars took from China in the 19th century.

Making nice to the Norks is not by itself going to make Russia a major power in Asia. But China has a very sensitive relationship with North Korea, and China’s failure to exert more influence over its troublesome neighbor reduces China’s prestige in the neighborhood. Fear of North Korean nuclear devices also drives the militarization in Japan and keeps South Korea close to the United States. China has been trying to use economic and diplomatic pressure to persuade the North Koreans to take an approach that’s a little less rambunctious. China’s failure today to impact North Korea’s behavior makes Beijing look weak and ineffectual.

Russia’s new North Korea policy is likely a way to make China understand that Russia can cause a lot of trouble. It is also a way to frustrate, humiliate, and distract the Obama Administration. Punishing Washington has become a kind of national sport at the Kremlin.

Putin is determined to reassert Russia’s role as a great power. He does not care much whether Russia’s foreign policy looks pretty. He just wants to be noticed. So far, he’s having a lot of success.

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