Why Russia is throwing North Korea a lifeline to protect Kim Jong Un

 In World

President Vladimir Putin (C) meets with his Venezuelan
counterpart Nicolas Maduro (L) at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia
October 4, 2017.

Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is quietly boosting economic support
for North Korea to try to stymie any U.S.-led push to oust Kim
Jong Un as Moscow fears his fall would sap its regional clout and
allow U.S. troops to deploy on Russia’s eastern border.

Though Moscow wants to try to improve battered U.S.-Russia
relations in the increasingly slim hope of relief from Western
sanctions over Ukraine, it remains strongly opposed to what it
sees as Washington’s meddling in other countries’ affairs.

Russia is already angry about a build-up of U.S.-led NATO forces
on its western borders in Europe and does not want any
replication on its Asian flank.

Yet while Russia has an interest in protecting North Korea, which
started life as a Soviet satellite state, it is not giving
Pyongyang a free pass: it backed tougher United Nations sanctions
against North Korea over its nuclear tests last month.

But Moscow is also playing a fraught double game, by quietly
offering North Korea a slender lifeline to help insulate it from
U.S.-led efforts to isolate it economically.

A Russian company began routing North Korean internet traffic
this month, giving Pyongyang a second connection with the outside
world besides China. Bilateral trade more than doubled to $31.4
million in the first quarter of 2017, due mainly to what Moscow
said was higher oil product exports.

At least eight North Korean ships that left Russia with fuel
cargoes this year have returned home despite officially declaring
other destinations, a ploy U.S. officials say is often used to
undermine sanctions against Pyongyang.

And Russia, which shares a short land border with North Korea,
has also resisted U.S.-led efforts to repatriate tens of
thousands of North Korean workers whose remittances help keep the
country’s hard line leadership afloat.

“The Kremlin really believes the North Korean leadership should
get additional assurances and confidence that the United States
is not in the regime change business,” Andrey Kortunov, head of
the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to
the Russian Foreign Ministry, told Reuters.

“The prospect of regime change is a serious concern. The Kremlin
understands that (U.S. President Donald) Trump is unpredictable.
They felt more secure with Barack Obama that he would not take
any action that would explode the situation, but with Trump they
don’t know.”

Trump, who mocks North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket
man” on a suicide mission, told the United Nations General
Assembly last month he would “totally destroy” the country if

Trump kim jong un
this Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017, file photo, a man watches a
television screen showing U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the
Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea has
announced a detailed plan to launch a salvo of ballistic missiles
toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, a major military hub
and home to U.S. bombers. If carried out, it would be the North’s
most provocative missile launch to date.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

He has also said Kim Jong Un and his foreign minister “won’t be
around much longer” if they made good on a threat to develop a
nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the United States.

Strategic border

To be sure, Beijing’s economic ties to Pyongyang still dwarf
Moscow’s and China remains a more powerful player in the
unfolding nuclear crisis. But while Beijing is cutting back trade
as it toughens its line on its neighbor’s ballistic missile and
nuclear program, Russia is increasing its support.

People familiar with elements of Kremlin thinking say that is
because Russia flatly opposes regime change in North Korea.

Russian politicians have repeatedly accused the United States of
plotting so-called color revolutions across the former Soviet
Union and any U.S. talk of unseating any leader for whatever
reason is politically toxic in Moscow.

Russia’s joint military exercises with neighboring Belarus last
month gamed a scenario where Russian forces put down a
Western-backed attempt for part of Belarus to break away.

With Russia due to hold a presidential election in March,
politicians are again starting to fret about Western meddling.

In 2011, President Vladimir Putin accused then U.S. Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton of trying to stir up unrest in Russia and
he has made clear that he wants the United States to leave Kim
Jong Un alone.

While condemning Pyongyang for what he called provocative nuclear
tests, Putin told a forum last month in the eastern Russian port
of Vladivostok that he understood North Korea’s security concerns
about the United States and South Korea.

Vladivostok, a strategic port city of 600,000 people and
headquarters to Russia’s Pacific Fleet, is only about 100 km (60
miles) from Russia’s border with North Korea.

Russia would be fiercely opposed to any U.S. forces deploying
nearby in a reunited Korea.

Kim Jong Un
Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides a target-striking contest of the
special operation forces of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) to
occupy islands in this undated picture provided by KCNA in
Pyongyang on August 25, 2017.

KCNA via

“(The North Koreans) know exactly how the situation developed in
Iraq,” Putin told the economic forum, saying Washington had used
the false pretext that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction to
destroy the country and its leadership.

“They know all that and see the possession of nuclear weapons and
missile technology as their only form of self-defense. Do you
think they’re going to give that up?”

Analysts say Russia’s view is that North Korea’s transformation
into a nuclear state, though incomplete, is permanent and
irreversible and the best the West can hope for is for Pyongyang
to freeze elements of its program.

Nothing personal

Kortunov, the think-tank chief close to the Russian Foreign
Ministry, said he did not think the Kremlin’s defense of Kim Jong
Un was based on any personal affection or support for North
Korea’s leadership, likening Moscow’s pragmatic backing to that
it has given Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow’s position was motivated by a belief the status quo made
Russia a powerful geopolitical player in the crisis because of
its close ties to Pyongyang, Kortunov said, just as Russia’s
support for Assad has gifted it greater Middle East clout.

He said Moscow knew it would lose regional leverage if Kim Jong
Un fell, much as its Middle East influence was threatened when
Islamist militants looked like they might overthrow Assad in

“It’s a very delicate balancing act,” said Kortunov.

“On the one hand, Russia doesn’t want to deviate from the line of
its partners and mostly from China’s position on North Korea
which is getting tougher. But on the other hand, politicians in
Moscow understand that the current situation and level of
interaction between Moscow and Pyongyang puts Russia in a league
of its own compared to China.”

If the United States were to remove Kim Jong Un by force, he said
Russia could face a refugee and humanitarian crisis on its
border, while the weapons and technology Pyongyang is developing
could fall into even more dangerous non-state hands.

So despite Russia giving lukewarm backing to tighter sanctions on
Pyongyang, Putin wants to help its economy grow and is advocating
bringing it into joint projects with other countries in the

“We need to gradually integrate North Korea into regional
cooperation,” Putin told the Vladivostok summit last month.

(Editing by David Clarke)

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