Relations between Russia and North Korea are warming; Kim Jong-un looks set to make an official visit to Moscow, President Putin has written off vast amounts of North Korean debt, and there are plans for the Russians to build a transcontinental railroad and gas pipeline across the hermit kingdom. It is no surprise, of course, that this brightening in relations comes during a period of increased hostility between Russia and the USA.
Washington retains a persistent concern over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and has proven unable to bend the Kim dynasty to its will, either through strong economic sanctions (which the North appear to be bypassing) or via diplomatic concessions. That Putin now seems keen to forge closer ties with Pyongyang – two rogue states in league – could set alarm bells ringing on Capitol Hill.
Most analysts see Putin’s charm offensive as a political game to rile Washington. They argue that, should it come to supporting the North in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula, Russia would stay well away. Whilst this seems a rational theory, Putin has quite clearly demonstrated in recent months his refusal to kowtow to the demands of the international community or to act with any political convention. Indeed, it is worth remembering the period leading up to the Korean War to get a sense of the significance that the Putin-Kim relationship may potentially have.
In 1949, Joseph Stalin had no intention of supporting a North Korean takeover of its southern neighbour, which had been in the American-occupied zone after WWII. A direct confrontation with American forces was something the dictator was keen to avoid, as Putin would be today.
Yet the success of the communist revolution in China, and the promised support of Mao Zedong, allied with North Korean enthusiasm, led Stalin to sanction an invasion of the South in 1950. The proviso was that no Soviet forces would be engaged in open combat. Rather, Stalin used the North Koreans and Chinese as a proxy army against his ideological enemy whilst helping direct the war through the presence of Soviet advisers in Pyongyang and covert air support.
Putin himself has shown a willingness to make use of proxy fighters, from Georgia to the Caucuses and, presently, in eastern Ukraine. He has also had no problem publicising Russian arms deals to Iran, despite widespread international opposition. Indeed, Putin shares a similar worldview to Stalin in that it is Russo-centric, predicated on expansionism and belligerent to the end.
Whilst Russia is unlikely to come to North Korea’s rescue should Kim make a foolhardy move against the South, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Putin will seek to create further Western alarm on the Korean Peninsula and, in the process, turn its attention away from Eastern Europe.
In recent years, North Korea has acted petulantly by shelling South Korean islands and sinking its ships. Russian technology and intelligence could make such ‘small-scale’ provocations more targeted, without risking a major US response. Cyber attacks – which the North has already shown a penchant for – are another possible arena of cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.
Put simply, the Russians have already done far worse in Ukraine and got away with it. North Korea has the added benefit of a functioning (if small) nuclear deterrent which will naturally inhibit any deadly response to attacks against the South. Should Putin also manage to attain Chinese support for any such cover operation (tacit or otherwise), he will gain the ability to influence the geostrategic balance in Northeast Asia.
America stood firm in 1950 and prevented a communist takeover of the Korean Peninsula. Stalin tested American mettle and was met with a ferocious reply. Times have changed and the disgraceful inaction over Ukraine (in addition to Nigeria, South Sudan and a whole host of other places) shows that the West has lost its bottle.
It may be logical to believe that Putin would not risk a close alliance with the world’s ultimate pariah state. Yet at this moment in time he must feel invincible. Until the West stands up to him, as it did to the Soviet leaders during the Cold War, he will not back down. If he cannot shape the world in Russia’s image, he will at least ensure that American predominance is tested in every region within which he is able to exert his considerable influence.