This May marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. To celebrate, Russian officials announced in March that the year 2015 would be a “Year of Friendship” between the nations of North Korea and Russia. Accordingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un to Moscow to celebrate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in May. North Korean officials announced their intention to strengthen the bond between the two countries, in terms of political, economic, and cultural exchanges.
This new friendship has already borne fruit: Russia has agreed to forgive about US$10 billion of the US$11 billion by which North Korea was indebted to Russia. The remaining US$1 billion is to be used to invest in North Korean infrastructure. Furthermore, Russia is considering a US$25 billion dollar plan to reconstruct North Korea’s railway system in exchange for Russian investors’ access to North Korean mineral resources.
This announcement comes during a time of increased strain between the two countries and the international community: North Korea faces increasing pressure due to its nuclear weapons testing and human rights abuses, while Russia faces sanctions due to its annexation of Crimea, as well as increased scrutiny as it creates tensions with surrounding states. Furthermore, Russia must cope with economic strain due to its spiraling oil industry, and has been seeking to strengthen its economic ties with Eastern powers: in 2014, Russia signed a US$400 billion gas deal with China in an attempt to counteract the effects of the economic sanctions. North Korea not only faces pressure from the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union, but also continues to lose favor with China, its longtime ally, due to unresolved tensions surrounding the execution of Kim Jong-un’s late uncle Jang Song-thaek, who was largely responsible for forging North Korea’s positive relationship with China.
With both nations feeling pressure from the world, the partnership between North Korea and Russia is hardly surprising. The alliance appears to be an attempt to balance the pressure placed on the two countries by the West. In particular, it seems that both nations are sending a message to the United States and other Western governments that they have the ability to expand in other areas should the West seek to isolate them through sanctions. How strong, however, will this “friendship” based on mutual external pressures be? What can we expect from a stronger Russia and North Korea?
If the actions taken by Russia and North Korea so far are an indication of the future of this relationship, their bond appears to heavily depend on financial considerations, with added benefits of military and cultural cooperation and exchanges. However, it remains to be seen how committed to each other the two nations are; should North Korea be called to defend Russia militarily or vice versa, the relationship may suffer as the costs surpass the perceived benefits. Regardless, any sort of military cooperation, grouped with other concerns such as North Korea’s nuclear weapon development and Russia’s expanding influence in the East, present a potential threat to the United States’ initiative to pivot eastward militarily.
In particular, it seems that both nations are sending a message to the United States and other Western governments that they have the ability to expand in other areas should the West seek to isolate them through sanctions.
If the “Year of Friendship” does result in a stronger, more powerful Russia and a more threatening North Korea, and if Russia continues its aggressions in neighboring countries while North Korea continues its nuclear weapons testing, tensions between the two nations and Western powers will only continue to increase. The United States and European Union will seek to counterbalance the increased power of North Korea and Russia, which may find themselves facing more sanctions and efforts to isolate them from other nations. As Western powers seek to maintain the status quo, the “friendship” between Russia and North Korea is only seen as a threat. How can the West hedge against this threat?
In the past, the answer has been sanctions, and until provided with reason to change this strategy, it figures to continue. The US Department of the Treasury claims that sanctions “send a strong message to the Russian government that there are consequences for their actions that threaten the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” The UN Security Council has a similar view on its resolutions toward North Korea. Concerning the unanimous March 2013 resolution to tighten sanctions on North Korea due to its continuation of nuclear weapons testing, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the resolution measures “effective and credible,” and commented that “the Security Council has sent an unequivocal message to the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] that the international community will not tolerate its pursuit of nuclear weapons and related acts.” Today, sanctions against North Korea and Russia are deemed effective by the structures that sponsor them. Whether this will remain the dominant opinion is yet to be seen, as Russia and North Korea seek to rise in the face of such sanctions. What actions, then, will the West and the international community take to address these issues if these sanctions are ineffective?
Considering that compared to military action, successful sanctions are quite favorable, there must be recognition of ineffective sanctions when and where they exist. History shows that only about 34 percent of sanctions between 1914 and 1990 have been successful, and that many of these sanctions negatively impact the poor in the targeted country, rather than the upper or ruling class. A possible route to take should these sanctions fail would be to strengthen NATO alliances and other military alliances to counterbalance the possible threats of this new partnership between North Korea and Russia.
While there is no clear path of action should the sanctions toward North Korea and Russia be unsuccessful, the partnership between these two should, at the very least, serve as an impetus to think beyond sanctions, lest the old adage “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” manifest itself into a threatening partnership.