They both like macho photo-ops, enjoy the friendship of washed-up Western celebrities, and have been sanctioned by the United States — so why wouldn't Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin be friends?
Russia has ramped up its cooperation with North Korea amid international condemnation over its role in the Ukraine crisis, and the leaders of the two countries will finally have a chance to meet when Kim visits Moscow next month for the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany's surrender in World War II. It will be the first official foreign trip for the Hermit Kingdom's young leader.
With relations with the West still tense over the Ukraine crisis — American and European leaders have declined the Kremlin's invitation to the Victory Day celebrations — Russia can always use another political ally. But it also stands to gain economically from the warming of relations with its southern neighbor, which fits into a strategic shift away from the politically treacherous markets of Europe to those of Asia.
"Both our countries are under US sanctions. We have the same challenges, the same problems," Alexander Vorontsov, an analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences who previously worked at the Russian Embassy in North Korea, told VICE News. "This plays its role, but I'm saying that the activation of our bilateral cooperation started earlier than the crisis in Ukraine… The first reason was our turn to the East."
Russia has been improving military cooperation and trade ties with Far Eastern countries since at least 2013 as part of what has been called "Putin's pivot" toward Asia — an adjustment whose focus mirrors that of US government, which is also in the process of "rebalancing" its foreign policy in the region. Putin's efforts have been focused on China, which signed two blockbuster deals to buy gas from Russia last year.
But Moscow has also been making political overtures and signing deals with Pyongyang in recent years, even helping to build infrastructure there just as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Putin met with the late Kim Jong-il in Russia to discuss improving economic ties as far back as 2002, presenting Kim with a finely engraved shotgun as a token of his good will.
Such diplomatic meetings have increased in frequency of late. Kim Yong-nam, the chairman of North Korea's legislature, led a delegation to the Sochi Winter Olympics in February 2014. The following October, Russia's Far East Development Minister Alexander Galushka announced that the two countries would implement a visa-free regime. The two nations went all in earlier this year and declared that 2015 would be a North Korean-Russian "year of friendship."
At times, Moscow has appeared to be cultivating relations with its pariah state neighbor simply to spite the West, which slapped economic sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea and backing pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine. Just days after the United Nations passed a resolution in March condemning the annexation of Crimea, Russia and North Korea signed an economic trade cooperation pact aiming to raise annual bilateral trade to $1 billion by 2020. North Korea was also one of the 11 countries that voted against the UN resolution.
"We value that North Korea supports Russia in the international arena," Vorontsov acknowledged, but he noted that the primary motivation behind the mutual affection was economic upside. Of course, politics comes into play as well: Putin was forced to scrap a Black Sea pipeline to Bulgaria in December because of European Union objections, signaling how thorny Russia's energy relations with Europe have become.
"We run into problems with the Russian presence in Eastern Europe, and the attractiveness of Asian markets is growing, not just in North but also in South Korea," Vorontsov said.
In 2013, Russia built a 34-mile rail link between its port of Khasan and the North Korean port of Rason — a $300 million project that has allowed Russian coal to be delivered to China. And in 2014, the Russian parliament agreed to write off almost $10 billion of North Korea's Soviet-era debt, and the two countries agreed to trade only in rubles to facilitate trade.
North Korea, whose economy is 50 times smaller than South Korea's, still owes $1.09 billion to be paid back over the next 20 years, but Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak said that this financial obligation could be used to fund mutual projects in North Korea.
'Both our countries are under US sanctions. We have the same challenges, the same problems.'
The most promising of these is a proposed pipeline and railway that would link Russia to North and South Korea, which would open up yet another lucrative Asian market for gas and electricity. Although Putin discussed the project with Kim during a meeting in 2011, it hasn't moved forward due to tensions between the two Koreas, which are still officially at war.
Another potential project named Pobeda is worth an estimated $25 billion and would see Russian investors upgrade railroads in North Korea. The work will focus on routes that lead to mining sites, according to Vorontsov, and will help North Korea exploit its deposits of mineral resources, including coal and non-ferrous metals. The two countries also recently signed a deal to construct a road that will connect them, and have discussed the development of space cooperation.
The growing friendship, however, also raises the possibility that Russia could be abetting human rights violations by the North Korean regime, which has been accused of arbitrary arrests and executions and is known to run a network of harsh labor camps. In November, Moscow and Pyongyang drafted an agreement that would obligate Russia to return illegal immigrants to North Korea, even though a recent United Nations inquiry documented the torture of North Koreans who were deported from Russia.
Labor camps in Russia staffed by North Koreans are another concern. As VICE previously reported, North Korea has exported workers deep within Siberia to toil in exchange for much-needed foreign currency. More recently, North Korea has been renting land in eastern Russian for its farmers to grow food for their countrymen back home. Pyongyang reached an agreement on agricultural cooperation with the Khabarovsk region in October. It has taken out $600 million in loans to invest in these farming projects, and plans to rent 10,000 hectares of Russian land. North Korea is also reportedly opening farms in Russia's Amur Province.
Asked about the conditions at these farms, which are run by North Korean military officers, Vorontsov said, "They work by the rules they are used to in North Korea." He added that the projects are "their internal affair."
But while Moscow doesn't appear to be worried about labor conditions, North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions are a legitimate concern, and with good reason: This week, China warned the United States that Pyongyang could already have 20 nuclear warheads, suggesting that its nuclear program is much further along than previously thought.
Commenting on a visit to Moscow by Kim confidant Choe Ryong-hae in November, deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the first item on the agenda would be the "outlook for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." State news agency TASS reported that the "unsettled nuclear problem of North Korea remains a brake on cooperation."
Vorontsov admitted the nuclear issue was "complicated," and said Russia was working to restart talks on North Korea's nuclear disarmament. He denied that the Russian money flowing into North Korea would help the regime in its quest for nuclear weapons, arguing instead that Western policy is provoking the country.
"The international community and the United States refuse to give North Korea a security guarantee, while in the West and in Seoul they don't hide that their main goal is to overthrow North Korea's system of government," he said. "The threat to their existence makes them take steps to develop a nuclear arsenal."
According to Vorontsov, Russia's approach of political and economic cooperation will be more effective in deterring nuclear arms development and improving the human rights situation in North Korea than the West's policy of isolating the country. Kim Jong-un's coming out at the Victory Day celebrations on May 9 in Moscow will be a step toward reducing that isolation.
"There will be many leaders of other countries there," Vorontsov said, "and he will have a chance to get acquainted and be presented to the international community."
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn