Russia is well-positioned to play a central role in managing the unrestrained acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. A larger role for Russia to deal with North Korea might yield some progress in scaling back Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions — a potential contribution that is seldom acknowledged in Western public discourse.
Why Russia? Russia shares a land border with North Korea and has a wealth of experience in dealing with the Kim dynasty, whose installation it directly supported some 70 years ago. History matters. The unique circumstances of North Korea’s founding have generally been a stabilising factor in DPRK–Russian relations. Moreover, Russia may one day be the only country of consequence with whom Pyongyang remains more or less on friendly terms. Although China is still North Korea’s treaty ally and by far its biggest trade partner, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have recently been marked by growing distrust.
While Russia’s direct trade volume with the DPRK is small (roughly US$100 million per year), as much as one-third of Chinese exports to the DPRK may consist of Russian-origin products, mainly oil and fuel-related. Further, Russia hosts some 30,000 North Korean guest workers, whose earnings are estimated to provide Pyongyang with up to US$170 million in cash annually, according to research by a group of scholars from Moscow and Vladivostok. There is also an unestablished number of North Korean-owned businesses in the country.