20 years under Putin: a timeline

Despite the lack of strategic interests or benefits, the Russian leadership frequently acts as North Korea’s defender on the world stage. According to author and analyst Alexander Podrabinek, the reason lies in the closeness of values and mentality in Moscow and in Pyongyang.



When we talk about a Moscow–Pyongyang axis, we are not talking about a strategic or diplomatic axis, and we are certainly not talking about a military one. The axis we are talking about is mental. Moscow and Pyongyang are bound together not so much by mutual interests as by mutual understanding. Mutual values are not tangible and are never a topic of negotiations. They remain an exquisite flavoring of bilateral agreements and international conventions. However, this does not diminish their significance.

The touching intimacy between Moscow and Pyongyang began during the Soviet era. At the time, North Korea was Moscow's communist partner and received grants, arms, food, and full-fledged diplomatic support. When Soviet times came to an end, bilateral relations shrank to a minimum but still survived. The intimacy did not disappear. Sometimes Russia expels North Korean refugees, and sometimes, as a brotherly gesture, it defends the Pyongyang dictatorship in the United Nations.

One wonders why democratic Russia is so movingly attached to the totalitarian DPRK. Such cooperation certainly has no advantages. North Korea is an absolute recipient both economically and financially. It absorbs everything and does not give anything in return. It is rather independent in the military and strategic sense, which is consistent with the official ideology of Juche—the concept of reliance on one's own strength. No Russian military presence has been noticed in the DPRK. Cultural exchange is almost nonexistent because of the lack of institutes supporting culture in North Korea. Cooperation in the humanitarian sphere is limited to occasional visits of some representatives of Russian pop culture to the DPRK, which are generously funded by the North Korean regime and later used for state propaganda. The damage that cooperation with the DPRK does to the democratic image of Russia is evident, because in the public mind, North Korea is one of the strongest examples of a modern dictatorship.

The ideal that North Korea achieved long ago and to which Putin still aspires consists of the combination of an omnipotent state and an impotent citizenry.

So what is the reason for Russia's efforts to shield North Korea whenever possible from international sanctions and other troubles? Why did Putin pay a visit to North Korea in the first year of his presidency? Was it for the same reason that he also restored Stalin’s national anthem during the first year of his presidency?

The Kremlin is ambivalent with regard to the DPRK. On the one hand, it cannot ignore the threats connected to North Korea's acquisition of missile technology and nuclear weapons. That is why Russia supports military technology and arms sanctions against North Korea in the UN Security Council. On the other hand, being mentally close to the North Korean regime, the Kremlin tries to minimize the damage that the international community can do to the DPRK. For example, last February, the Russian Foreign Ministry declared that Moscow would oppose new commercial and economic sanctions against North Korea. With Russia's bilateral trade with North Korea amounting to only $81 million in 2012 (the approximate cost of 20 luxury apartments in downtown Moscow), one must conclude that Russia's concern about maintaining commercial and economic relations with the DPRK is rather symbolic.

The Kremlin uses every opportunity to express its moral support for North Korea because Moscow and Pyongyang share common political and moral values (we are talking about the official Moscow and the official Pyongyang, of course). One may assume that Vladimir Putin sees the North Korean communist regime as an ideal form of government, in which the supreme commander can solve both state and personal problems without being concerned about public opinion or dismissal as a result of a poor electoral result. Putin's thirteen years as the de facto head of state have been directed toward building a system as close to the North Korean one as possible. Of course, not everything works out as Putin would like it to, but his trajectory is clear, evidenced by restrictions of civil liberties, the abolition of parliamentarianism, profanation of the judicial system, and tough repressions against the media and institutions of civil society. The ideal that North Korea achieved long ago and to which Putin still aspires consists of the combination of an omnipotent state and an impotent citizenry.


During the first year of his presidency, Vladimir Putin (right) paid a visit to North Korea. On left is the DPRK's "great leader," Kim Jong-il.


This strategy is being worked out in accordance with the two governments’ shared set of values. Both countries' foreign policy is based on anti-Americanism. Secondary enemies join the primary one according to circumstances: for Russia, these enemies may include the Baltic States, Georgia, Poland, and Ukraine; for the DPRK, they may extend to South Korea and Japan. Although both countries have one main enemy, their levels of insanity are, of course, different. Both Russia's and the DPRK's trump card is the terror that they can instill into the United States or their neighbors. For the lack of other arguments, the military threat remains the only chip of any value that they can use during negotiations. The favorite game of Moscow and Pyongyang is that of escalation.

In this game, the reality of the threat is the product of both countries’ military capabilities and the insanity of their politicians. In the past, up to a certain point, the DPRK and Russia had almost the same index of threat. Russia had a considerable stockpile of nuclear weapons and a relatively sound political leadership; the DPRK had a small degree of nuclear potential and an insane communist dictatorship. Therefore, the Kremlin occasionally went into hysterics about NATO getting too close to the Russian border or about the deployment of antiballistic missile systems in Europe. The DPRK evaded a round of six-party talks on the nuclear crisis to protest against South Korea’s smuggling of North Korean refugees from Vietnam. On another occasion, a North Korean submarine fired a torpedo that sank a South Korean warship; on yet another one, the DPRK shot scores of artillery rounds at a populated South Korean island. And every time, both Russian and North Korean political leaders felt important because their threats were taken seriously.

Recently, however, the DPRK has taken the lead in indulging its political inferiority complex. The bids have gone up. In October 2006, the DPRK announced its first nuclear test. In April 2009, it launched an intercontinental missile with a satellite. Although the missile immediately fell into the Pacific Ocean, the launch increased the complexity of the six-party talks. In May 2009, the DPRK conducted a second nuclear test and at the same time announced the revocation of its 1953 ceasefire agreement with South Korea. Formally, this withdrawal meant a return to a state of war with the southern neighbor. In May 2010, North Korea brought its armed forces into operational readiness and broke diplomatic relations with South Korea. In February of this year, the DPRK conducted a third nuclear test and has openly threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States, Japan, and South Korea in response to new sanctions and the expressions of anxiety by the international community.

On the one hand, everybody understands that threats against peace and safety are an integral part of the North Korean political style; on the other hand, nobody knows where a rush of threats can lead the deranged communists in Pyongyang.

The DPRK will win if it succeeds in arousing fear and forcing other countries to give up ground. Next time, the story will repeat itself.

The reaction of leading Western countries under such circumstances is almost always the same: whenever a risk arises, the choice is usually made in favor of appeasement and not of containment, which eventually results in another—bigger—risk. In those rare cases in which the West has stood its ground against totalitarian blackmail (as it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis and in its support for Taiwan), this policy has succeeded and cleared the international atmosphere. However, to make the decision to adopt such a policy, one needs to be politically courageous and highly professional.

Today's Western leaders can boast of neither of these qualities, and consequently, they have continued to reduce their antiballistic missile systems in order not to irritate the Kremlin and to cancel their military exercises in order not to provoke a conflict with Pyongyang. They make it look like this situation occurred by itself and not as a result of the knowingly provocative behavior of professionals playing a game of military escalation.

This is just what North Korea wants. The DPRK will win if it succeeds in arousing fear and forcing other countries to give up ground. Next time, the story will repeat itself—only the threats will be even more serious. Escalation is inevitable. Western politics are paralyzed by irresponsibility. Nobody dares to put an end to nuclear blackmail by a country with a population of 25 million people and a practically insane government. Every administration dreams of passing this headache on to its successors.

North Korea's open and secret supporters are encouraged by its example: Why not try one's luck at blackmail? It is not difficult to imitate the North Korean style of foreign policy—especially for Russia. After all, the image of today's DPRK was fashioned 60 years ago after the example of the Soviet Union. The North Korean army is even called the Worker-Peasant Red Guards. And in downtown Pyongyang, there is a statue that reminds one of the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, a famous landmark of Stalinist monumental art that was pompously restored in Moscow several years ago near the former All-Russia Exhibition Center (the largest center of its kind in the USSR, built to display the country’s economic achievements). Leaders are as good as monuments. Putin can easily compete with North Korea’s "government geniuses" in his unsinkability.

The dotted Moscow–Pyongyang axis was formed long ago. If Putin brings Russia to conformity with the North Korean model, this axis will acquire a fully-fledged political substance.