Make no mistake, the Stalinist North Korean regime is no close ally of the Kremlin but simply a pawn in Russia’s great geopolitical game with the United States and the West.
Vladimir Putin sees Kim Jong-un as a useful idiot, although an idiot that has been causing a lot of trouble lately. After all, the Soviet Union birthed North Korea, and today’s Russia continues to see the North inside its sphere of influence. A glaring example of this usefulness was North Korea’s support of Russia in its Ukrainian adventures.
The problem with North Korea’s latest temper tantrum is that it will cost Russia a lot of money, something it doesn’t have very much of at the moment. The sanctions against North Korea, pushed by the Obama administration through the United Nations after the latest round of North Korean nuclear tests, are substantially unfavorable to Russia in economic terms and a setback to Mr. Putin’s‘s long-term plan of literally mining the North for minerals and other commodities.
But within Mr. Putin’s view of the world, economic issues are secondary to influence and realpolitik. The fact that ordinary Russians are suffering due to Western sanctions is subservient to the Kremlin’s goal to re-establish Russian influence and power projection capability on the world stage. The Kremlin’s view of its relationship with North Korea is no different and fits within this mindset.
In Moscow’s eyes, North Korea is the perfect thorn in the Americans’ side. What better way to cause Washington problems than to have North Korea routinely rattle its sabers and threaten the West and South Korea, a country seen as a puppet to the Americans? Russia sees no threat from a nuclear North Korea. In fact, Russia is the North’s lifeline, providing fuel, food, weapons technology and military support. Russia will accept a nuclear North as it knows it has nothing to fear from the regime. However, Moscow does fear a united Korean Peninsula under Western influence. This outcome is completely unacceptable to Mr. Putin.
Russia would much rather have a state that is starving its people and beholden to Moscow for trade and other largesse than an economic powerhouse that a united Korea would most surely become. The prospect of an industrial giant putting the Russian economy and its industry to shame is certainly not a scenario the Kremlin will allow to develop. Russia has failed to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons. In fact, the Russian economy is less diversified than under Soviet control. Moscow cannot afford to have this reality highlighted by an overly successful, united Korea.
To understand the Russian viewpoint, one must understand Russian history.
Mr. Putin is no longer a communist. He is a czar. He values money, power and influence. Yes, Ukraine is costing Russia money and making it the target of Western anger, but that does not matter in the face of territorial gains.
Yes, the Russian Syrian campaign is expensive, but a small price to pay for Russia regaining control of the Middle East. In that vein, a nuclear North Korea, even one that causes Russia economic duress, is worth the cost as long as America doesn’t get the peace it desires on the Korean Peninsula.
I sometimes wonder if Russia would even mind if the North became more isolated and economically weak, as it would make the hermit kingdom even more dependent on the Russian czar. This would place the Kremlin in a stronger position with the West in the role of the white knight, a solver of geopolitical problems, a role Vladimir Putin enjoys for international and domestic consumption.
Many analysts have stated that the way to control North Korea is through China. I disagree. I think Russia is just as important in reining in North Korea’s nuclear behavior. The secret to stopping North Korea’s nuclear development and proliferation is to make that endgame favorable to the Russian czar’s interest. Only then will the riddle of North Korea be solved.
• L. Todd Wood is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he studied Russian as a strategic language. He is also a former USAF special operations helicopter pilot supporting SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force. He has contributed to The Moscow Times, Fox Business, National Review, Newsmax TV and many others. He travels extensively to the former Soviet Union and splits his time between the New York area and Moscow. His column, Behind the Curtain, runs Fridays in The Washington Times; his Web site is LToddWood.com.
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