Putin Courts North Korea: taking a leaf from Stalin’s book to test the courage of the West

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.

Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea
Putin looks set to snub the West further by moving closer to North Korea

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.

Stalin backed Kim's bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process
Stalin backed Kim’s bid for the Korean Peninsula, testing American fortitude in the process

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.

The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy
The Incheon landing, which saved Korea, was a great act of American courage and strategy

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.

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The Politics of Homosexuality in Russian History: a meandering story

Vladimir Putin’s latest comments stating that gay athletes and spectators are welcome to attend the Sochi Winter Olympics next year are unlikely to satisfy observers. Coming from a leader instrumental in passing a law that has prohibited the publication of “homosexual propaganda” to under-18s, Putin’s remarks are just the latest stage in an ongoing saga over the politicisation of homosexuality in Russian history.

A movement to boycott the Sochi games is struggling for momentum
A movement to boycott the Sochi games is struggling for momentum

As early as the sixteenth century, political opponents accused Tsar Ivan IV (the ‘terrible’) of homosexuality to discredit his increasingly debauched and erratic rule. At a time when cross-dressing and homosexuality were illegal, some suggested that Ivan encouraged his male attendants to dress in women’s clothing for his pleasure. There is little historical evidence for this, with the exception of some dubious works of 19th century literature, yet it is an early example of how the ‘taboo’ of homosexuality has been used for political purposes by Russia’s elite.

Peter the Great outlawed homosexuality in the army during the 1700s. For Peter, this was an essential step in ridding Russia of its international reputation as a weak, corrupt nation. By preying on accepted European sentiments of the time (i.e. that homosexuality was unnatural, pathetic and immoral), he could convey an image of unbending strength and virtue within his armed forces.

Tsar Nicholas I would introduce a ban on sodomy to Russian society in general in 1832. Despite punishments of exile and imprisonment, this law was not always enforced and Russia would become notable for its gay community in the 19th century, particularly in intellectual circles. Why there was no crackdown on this behaviour is difficult to ascertain. Possibly it was an acquiescence of sorts by Nicholas, whose Romanov dynasty was already facing accusations of being excessively repressive, particularly with regards to the persisting conditions of serfdom amongst the peasants.

Nikolai Gogol, Russia's most famous writer of the time, was openly gay
Nikolai Gogol, Russia’s most famous writer of the time, was openly gay

Perhaps then the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861 gave the Tsars greater confidence in clamping down on homosexuality towards the end of the 19th century. Seizing on an apparent popular conception that homosexual behaviour was a symptom of the corrupt elite (expressed in works by Leo Tolstoy and others), the Tsars attempted to distance themselves from the toleration of sexual ‘deviance’ by enforcing punishments for perceived crimes.

This atmosphere of sexual repression would be altered by the communist revolution of 1917, which sought to reverse nearly every aspect of Tsarist policy and portray a climate of freedom amongst the populace. Indeed, Lenin was instrumental in legalising homosexuality in the new Soviet Union.

Stalin’s rule would lead to another change in the political establishment’s view of homosexuality. Stalin opposed it not so much on moral or religious grounds. Rather, he saw homosexuality as counter-productive to the workers’ revolution. Men and women should copulate to increase the manpower of the workforce. A simple if absurd theory, which would condemn many to the Gulags.

"Bring up a generation of selfless devotion to the cause of communism"
“Bring up a generation of selfless devotion to the cause of communism”

The fall of communism and the election of Boris Yeltsin as President was followed by the re-legalisation of homosexuality. Just as Lenin had tried to disassociate his new regime with that of Tsarist rule, Yeltsin wanted positive comparisons to be drawn between him and his communist predecessors.

That Putin has slowed the progress for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights in Russia is unsurprising given his general desire to do anything that he knows will rile the West.

It is, however, also symptomatic of the way homosexuality and politics have been linked in Russian history. What is needed now is for the burgeoning political opposition movement in Russia to embrace LGBT rights as an expression of their promise for greater freedom to the Russian people. Such a statement is long overdue.