he Trump administration continues to pay a high price for treating Russia as an enemy. Vladimir Putin has dealt himself back into the Korea game. He could be helpful if it was worth his while. But as long as Washington undermines Moscow’s interests, Putin will toss some cogs into the proverbial wheel.
The collapse of the Soviet Union for a time turned Moscow into a geopolitical irrelevancy. Nowhere was that more obvious than in North Korea. The new Russian Federation recognized South Korea, earning a cascade of insults and fulminations from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Pyongyang’s protestations bothered the Yeltsin government not at all since the South offered better economic opportunities.
Since then Putin has returned Russia to the DPRK, though cautiously and modestly, to be sure. Last week he met North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok.
It was a low-key affair held on a university campus with no statement issued, very different from last year’s dramatic meeting between Kim and Donald Trump in Singapore. The North Korean leader called Vladivostok a “very meaningful one-on-one exchange of opinions on issues of mutual interest and current issues,” as if the two strongmen were buddies who grabbed a drink and talked sports. But Kim’s latest diplomatic venture gave Russia at least a toehold in the peninsula’s future.
The Soviet Union loomed large in Korean affairs following World War II. Moscow and Washington divided the peninsula into two occupation zones, which became separate states. The Soviets anointed Kim Il-sung, an anti-Japanese guerrilla commander, to lead the new North Korea. In 1950, Moscow also approved Kim’s plans to invade the Republic of Korea, sparking the Korean War. But Joseph Stalin avoided obvious direct involvement, leaving it to the People’s Republic of China to save the DPRK following America’s entry into the war.
With destalinization after Stalin’s death, Kim’s relations with Moscow deteriorated and Pyongyang was in the process of creating an even more suffocating personality cult.