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'A Sign of How Bad Things Are': North Korea Is Sidling Up to Russia Again

The nations this week declared 2015 a "year of friendship" as both seek closer cultural, political, and economic ties.

by Liz Fields
Mar 12 2015, 9:55pm

North Korea's Ambassador to Russia Kim Hyun Joon, left, poses with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

North Korea and Russia are once again strengthening their anti-Western alliance, with the two nations this week announcing they're seeking closer diplomatic, business, and cultural ties.

"The Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation decided to make 2015... a year of friendship between the two countries," North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) was quoted as saying.

The announcement Wednesday came as the countries celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which both ended the Nazi occupation of Russia and freed North Korea from Japanese rule.

North Korea and Russia will "develop the bilateral relations onto a new higher stage in various fields, including politics, economy, and culture under a mutual agreement," KCNA said, according to South Korean English-language paper the Korean Herald.

Joint cultural events will reportedly be held in Moscow and Pyongyang, among other cities, as part of the tightening relations, while a series of diplomatic exchanges will also take place this year, including a planned visit to the Russian capital for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in May.

Related: North Korea leads the world in human rights, says report by North Korea.

Victor Chaa Georgetown professor and senior advisor at the foreign relations think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News that the latest rekindling of relations between the nations has a volatile history dictated by external developments and diplomatic declines.

"Our research says that whenever there's activity in North Korea-Russian relations, it's a pretty good indication that North Korean relations elsewhere — in six party nuclear talks, in inter-Korean talks, and with China — have dried up," he said. "It's a sign of how bad things are, but once any of those other channels start up, the Russia stuff just fades away."

Cha said that Russia's objectives in maintaining ties with North Korea are centered on largely commercial endeavors, including a long-term strategic goal to gain trading access to Asia and a warm water port in the North Korean city of Nagin through rail and land routes that run through the notoriously reclusive nation. Russia is currently looking at a $20 billion-plus deal dubbed the "Iron Silk Road" that would see Moscow revamping North Korea's rails in exchange for access to the country's mineral and natural resources.

"[The Russians] pursue those things in a very half-hearted fashion, in part because they understand the unreliability of their partner," said Cha, who is also a former National Security Council advisor in the George W. Bush administration. "One day, if Korea unifies, it will be profitable to run gas pipelines through Korea, through to east Asia, Siberia, and Europe."

In recent times, Moscow has sought to boost relations with a number of partners — including Beijing, Caracas, and Pyongyang — as it faces alienation from the rest of Europe and severe financial troubles following Western sanctions over the ongoing Ukraine conflict.

Cha outlined a number of other trade deals that underpin its relationship with North Korea, including export of forced slave labor to Russia, which is lucrative enterprise for both parties. Defectors of the regime have previously told local media there are an estimated 20,000 North Korean workers in Russia toiling in logging or construction camps. Hundreds of thousands more are sent to work in labor camps across the globe, defectors have said.

The Hermit Kingdom has been heavily criticized for its human rights record, and late last year, the UN Security Council held a hearing on whether to refer the country to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for rampant abuses against its own people. China opposed the move, but the unprecedented hearing also spurred North Korea's foreign minister to seek meetings with Russian counterparts on a number of occasions to shore-up Moscow's support.

Related: UN Investigator Asks China to Help Prosecute North Korea for Human Rights Violations

The new partnership has been forged as North Korea's relationship with its ally and longtime protector, China, is waning. For years, China has acted as patron to the smaller communist state, providing billions annually in much-needed aid — almost $7 billion in 2014 — and doubling trade, despite UN sanctions imposed to deter North Korean nuclear weapons testing and other acts of military aggression.

But after North Korea's third and latest nuclear test in 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping denounced its ally's nuclear brinkmanship and joined in with calls from the UN and Western leaders for the nation to denuclearize.

Despite China's concerns about the North Korean leadership and regime, Cha said it is unlikely "the Chinese are going to turn back on their relationship with North Korea," as they "don't want the country to collapse," which would prompt further regional instability.

"[The relationship] is in this limbo, where they're not meeting or making agreements, but I don't think they're going to cut them off," he said. "It's like not digesting your food and not throwing it up, but having it sit there halfway uncomfortably."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields