Recent days have seen US officials including the notoriously hawkish John Bolton state that the DPRK’s denuclearisation process is not progressing as rapidly as the US would like. In turn, DPRK officials have publicly complained that US officials are on the verge of betraying the spirit of trust and good will that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump secured during their historic Singapore Summit in June. Although some have expressed concerns that these recent developments will inflict harm on the peace process, the reality on the ground if very different.
First of all, as geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko wrote shortly after the Singapore Summit, it is actually to America’s advantage to make a positive example of an economically revived DPRK so as to negate the decades of bad publicity that has surrounded the formation of partnerships with the US (Saddam, Gaddafi, Assad etc). Korybko further stated that as part of America’s drive to present a would-be alternative to China’s One Belt–One Road development/trading model, the US needs one major Asian success story to off-set the fact that more and more African and Asian nations are leaning towards China than they are to the less organised American model for developmental partnerships.
However, even in the short term, there is a further element which tends to make the Korean peace process an irreversible phenomenon. Unlike in the 1990s and early 2000s during prior attempts to normalise the DPRK’s relations with the US, today China is an economic superpower on the road to overtaking the US in terms of having the world’s largest overalleconomy while Russia’s geopolitical superpower status that seemed to be over in the 1990s is now restored even beyond Cold War levels as modern Russia has more geopolitical partners across ideological and geographical divides that it did in the putatively ideologically driven Cold War. Furthermore, under Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s government is among the world’s most enthusiastic partners for peace. In spite of recent negative statements between Washington and Pyongyang, Moon will next month visit Pyongyang as the two Korean states further advance mechanisms preparing for the signing of a lasting peace treaty to formally end the Korean War/Fatherland Liberation War.
For all of these reasons, the proverbial ‘peace horse’ has already bolted from the stable and is not going to be pushed back inside. Therefore, while the US attempts to extract a more rapid denuclearisation process while clinging to its previous statements about not relaxing sanctions until the process is entirely complete (as defined by Washington rather than by international bodies), it is now a competition between the US, China and Russia to see which superpower can be the first to the table when it comes to offering Kim Jong-un a new/expanded economic partnership for future development.
Between Russia, China and the US, Russia in fact has the least to lose by rapidly intensifying its always positive relations with Pyongyang. The issue of the Korean peace process – a universally praised development has been subject to unique criticism in the US with the opposition Democratic party and the more extreme elements of Trump’s Republican party calling the peace process a kind of “sell out”. While China is more economically powerful than Russia and more economically dynamic than much of the US economy, China and the US are currently engaged in a game of cat and mouse regarding the trade war. Thus, any moves China makes towards rapidly expanding its economic partnership with the DPRK will likely be instantly seized upon by Washington as an excuse to implement more anti-Chinese tariffs. While China is undoubtedly a crucial economic partner of the DPRK, for the moment Beijing is likely to play the long game with the US in the trade war rather than do something to ‘show its cards’ by leaping into the DPRK with a new economic initiative.
But while Trump himself is under domestic pressure to retain anti-DPRK sanctions and while for China, whatever it does with Pyongyang will be scrutinised quickly by a tariff hungry White House, Russia has nothing to lose by arranging and beginning to implement a long term economic strategy with both Korean states. The latest round of sanctions against Russia from the US, this time justified by the cartoonish matter of the alleged Skripal poisoning in England shows that the US is going to sanction Russia for the foreseeable future irrespective of how both countries reached an agreement to mutually defend Israel’s alleged interests regarding the Syria conflict. Unlike China, Russia’s economic ties to the US were comparatively unremarkable even prior to the beginning of the sanctions war in 2014 and therefore, there is little Russia can hope for to change this long standing reality. Indeed it would be largely foolish on Russia’s part to think that its own actions motivate sanctions as was made clear by the fact that the ‘Skripal sanctions’ have arisen over an incident that clearly had nothing to do with the actions of the Russian government. Therefore, if Russia is going to be sanctioned anyway and sanctioned for what it does not do at that – Russia should not hesitate to do things that are actually beneficial to Russia irrespective of what the US thinks or does.
Russia stands to gain much by implementing the tripartite economic cooperation proposals with Seoul and Pyongyang that Vladimir Putin initially proposed in the autumn of 2017 before an eager Moon Jae-in and an optimistic DPRK delegation. Putin’s proposals call for a Russia-Korea Economic and Energy Corridor where road and rail links between Russia’s border with the DPRK and South Korea will be constructed. Furthermore, it is Russia’s long term goal to build a gas pipeline to South Korea via the DPRK. This is in both Russia and South Korea’s mutual interest. Energy hungry South Korea has thus far been prohibited from receiving comparatively inexpensive pipeline gas due to historic tensions with its northern neighbour. Today however, with relations between Seoul and Pyongyang rapidly improving, it is clear that South Korea officials look forward to the opportunity to save on energy costs by having Russian gas delivered via pipeline while such a project could also help to further harmonise trade between both Korean states and Russia, a goal shared by Moon Jae-in, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin.
Such initiatives fit in with Russia’s overarching goals of expanding energy and trading partnerships, South Korea’s goals of seeking cheaper energy while expanding its own export markets in the age of American protectionism and the DPRK’s goals of attaining more economic inter-connectivity with its neighbours. If Russia were to kick-start such an initiative there is a possibility that more sanctions from the US would come Moscow’s way, but since it is highly likely that more sanctions are coming no matter what Russia does or does not do, it would behove Russia to engage in a beneficial economic partnership with the DPRK as in all likelihood it will not impact relations with the US beyond their current negative state that can scarcely fall lower.
With Putin and Kim exchanging friendly telegrams and with the Russian President indicating that he is ready to meet with Kim Jong-un at the earliest time of mutual convenience, it would be to the benefit of both sides and also to South Korea for such a meeting to be organised as soon as possible whether Putin revisits Pyongyang for the first time since the year 2000 or whether Kim Jong-un takes his first trip to neighbouring Russia.