From Russia With Love

April 22, 2015 6:45 AM

For the last several months we have tracked the warming relations between Pyongyang and Moscow, including signals of growing political closeness, trade, possible arms transfers, even a proposal for North Korea to lease Russian land, culminating in Kim Jong-un’s planned visit to Moscow next month. This week has brought a spate of new stories of Russia-DPRK cooperation during this “Year of Friendship.”

In the energy arena, Joongang Ilbo is reporting that during the May visit, Kim may close a deal for Russia to ship natural gas to North Korea. The paper reports that “Kim and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin are expected to negotiate an agreement on a pipeline natural gas (PNG) project that will connect Vladivostok and Khasan to North Korea’s sea port of Rajin” according to an unnamed South Korean official. “When the pipeline is connected, North Korea can build a gas power plant to partly alleviate its electric power shortage. Factory and businesses that have been idled can partly return to normal operation,” according to the source. A second trial shipment coal from Siberia to Rajin is also in the works. The planned 140,000 tons, to be handled by two Chinese ships, is more than three times the size of November’s initial pilot run.

In the field of transportation, the press is reporting that North Korea and Russia have signed an agreement to develop a new road connection between the two countries following a ceremony attended by Nikolai Asaul, Russia's deputy minister of transport, and his North Korea counterpart, Kwak Il Ryong, vice minister of land and marine transport. Development of a road connection will require building an automobile bridge to complement the existing rail bridge across the Tumen River, as well as the development of regulations on cross-border haulage. What little Russia-DPRK trucking that exists today is routed via the Chinese city of Hunchun in Jilin Province.

Russia and North Korea are not limiting themselves to local projects, however. According to one report, the two countries have agreed to work together in outer space. Pak Hyon Su, deputy head of the North Korean Committee of Space Technology was quoted in the piece as indicating that “The DPRK will develop proactive cooperation in the sphere of peaceful use of outer space with foreign organizations and countries, including Russia, on equal and mutually beneficial basis. The DPRK space program has peaceful purposes, and this country, like Russia, is against militarization of space.” An American official, Frank A. Rose, the U.S. assistant secretary for arms control, verification and compliance, “expressed confidence that Russia and North Korea would not use space exploration as a front for weapons testing.”

In the economics sphere, Russia has been providing what amounts to political support in a variety of ways. It is the lean season, normally a time of rising grain prices, but the invaluable Daily NK reports that imports of Russian rice have actually been driving down prices in North Korea’s northern provinces. An unnamed source in North Hamgyong county claimed that wheat and oil are coming in from Russia as well. The grains go first to the military, but as Steph Haggard and I argued in our book, Famine in North Korea, the ultimate effect of this supplement to supply is to dampen prices in the market. The paper is tracking prices to see if the alleged reduction is in fact observed by its monitors.

(Parenthetically, I stumbled across an article from the fall in the Moscow Times which provides some additional details on the land leasing story, quoting some different officials than the stories I had cited earlier.)

Another component of political-economic support is turning a blind eye toward sanctions busting. VOA and Yonhap have reported that a “North Korean machine manufacturer [Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corporation, which produces parts used in the North's missiles and uranium enrichment centrifuges] that is subject to U.N. sanctions appears to be doing business illegally through front companies in China and Russia.” The allegations originated with a report in November by Jeffrey Lewis and Catherine Dill of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies posted on the 38th North website. Specifically, the report claims that a Russian company known as Koryo Technologies or KORTEC was openly distributing Ryonha products. Joel Wit, editor of 38 North, was quoted by Yonhap as saying “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” (That was a joke: Joel was actually quoted as saying “I think this is a really good testimony to the problems that we are encountering with our sanctions.”)

Finally, to promote comradeship and and ever warmer fraternal feelings, North Korea is inviting Russian youngsters to attend summer camp in North Korea! According to the Moscow Times, “Im Cheon Il, North Korea's general consul in the Russian city of Nakhodka, made the proposal at a meeting with the Russian republic of Yakutia's head of foreign affairs, Vladimir Vasilyev, the republic's government said on its website.” Our former colleague Alex Melton once looked into the North Korean summer camps and wrote a couple of posts. Worth checking out (here and here).

OK, now the hard part. The obvious move, given the post’s title, would be to go with a video of “From Russia With Love.” But the title song is one of the less memorable in the Bond canon. And that juxtaposition of trucking and space exploration….it’s gotta be Deep Purple…


Michael Bassett

I've been predicting this for a while. In 2013 I had knowledge of oil trade shifts taking place to suggest that this was already the plan. You may recall my relationship with HBOil. Kevin Stahler wrote about it back then... I recently published this argument, or warning, regarding some U.S. opportunities and failures to seize opportunities which could have prevented this shift back to Russia here:

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