Russia and North Korea Play Nice: Vladimir Putin's Ukrainian Dance With Kim Jong-un

03/24/2015 05:41 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

Russia and North Korea make up the latest international odd couple. President Vladimir Putin reached out to one of the poorest and least predictable states on earth. So far the new Moscow-Pyongyang axis matters little. But Russia demonstrated that it can make Washington pay for confronting Moscow over Ukraine.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea exists only because of Russia's predecessor state. The U.S. and Soviet Union divided the Korean peninsula, which had been a Japanese colony, after Tokyo's surrender in World War II. Moscow's zone became the DPRK.

In 1950, Joseph Stalin approved Kim Il-sung's plan for a military offensive to conquer the Republic of Korea. As the globe's communist leader who had armed the North, Stalin could hardly say no. But he distanced the U.S.S.R. from Pyongyang's invasion to avoid conflict with America. After the U.S. and its allies threatened to overrun North Korea, the People's Republic of China intervened massively. The PRC then eclipsed Russia in Pyongyang's halls of power; the Sino-North Korean relationship was said to be as close as lips and teeth.

In practice, however, the DPRK's relations with both communist giants were tempestuous as Kim balanced the two while extirpating all domestic opposition. He disapproved of de-Stalinization and denounced Khrushchev; Kim later was angered by Chinese opposition to turning the North into a de facto monarchy. North Korea denounced Moscow in 1991 after it recognized South Korea. The North reacted more calmly when Beijing did the same the following year only because Pyongyang had no other patrons to turn to.

Over the last two decades Russo-North Korean relations have been minimal. The DPRK welshed on its debt and offered few economic opportunities. In contrast, Seoul provided investment and trade in abundance. Moscow even transferred weapons to the ROK to help pay off Russia's debts to the South. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met with "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il in 2011, but there was little follow-through, Two years later President Vladimir Putin held a summit with South Korean President Park; Russia leaned toward Seoul in denouncing the North's missile and nuclear programs. Russia was part of the nuclear Six-Party Talks, but played only a minor role, in keeping with its emphasis on Europe and "the Near Abroad."

However, a new entente now appears to be in the works. Last year Kim Yong-nam, the North's formal head of state, attended the Sochi Olympics. Throughout the year the two countries exchanged high-level visitors and inked a number of economic agreements. Pyongyang sent more officials to Russia than the PRC, capping the year with a trip by Choe Ryong-hae, reported to be regime number two or three, who sought Moscow's aid in blocking UN attempts to charge the DPRK with human rights violations. Russia indicated its willingness to host a summit between the two nations' leaders.

Both governments supplied copious rhetoric. Last fall Putin harkened back to a "long-standing tradition of friendship and cooperation" and declared that "a further deepening of political ties and trade and economic cooperation is definitely in the interests of the peoples of both countries and ensuring regional stability and security." Earlier this year, North Korea's Foreign Ministry declared that the two governments would "deepen political, economic and military contacts and exchanges."

Putin invited both North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Park Geun-hye to Russia's Victory Day celebrations in May. If Kim goes it would be his first foreign trip. (In contrast, China rebuffed his request for a meeting with President Xi Jinping.) Also possible is a Kim-Putin summit elsewhere in Russia or perhaps during a Putin stopover on his way to Tokyo, to which he has been invited.

Although Russia's DPRK initiatives are new, the interests being promoting are old: stability on the peninsula, denuclearization of the North, improved transportation links through Asia, expanded commercial and energy activities, and enhanced diplomatic clout. Pyongyang is readier to respond with Beijing having turned hostile and diplomacy with the ROK and America going nowhere.

So far Moscow has invested little. There is no aid, such as the energy and food provided by the PRC. Last year the Russian government finalized a 2012 agreement providing for a 90 percent debt write-off of $11 billion in Soviet-era loans. But there is no cost since this debt was never going to be repaid. Despite talk of economic deals, profit is likely to prove elusive for Russia. The North is impoverished, its people lack training, and its countryside has little infrastructure.

As for security, the Putin government is focused elsewhere. Joint military maneuvers are planned later this year, but no one imagines the two countries fighting together. Pyongyang wants to purchase Moscow's best fighter, the Su-35, but has little money to buy, let alone maintain and fuel, the planes.

Although the two governments have moved closer, their underlying interests diverge. Pyongyang desires to diversify its international relationships. Korea once was known as the "shrimp among whales," and never has that been truer than for the North, which has been left behind economically by all of its neighbors, most embarrassingly the ROK. Even the once comparably poor nation of Burma has abandoned isolation and is beginning to move economically.

North Korea also wants to find a counterweight to Beijing. During the Cold War, Kim Il-sung maneuvered adroitly between the Soviet Union and China. Since then the DPRK has unsuccessfully sought to engage America, Japan, and South Korea. The Chinese have grown increasingly irritated with Pyongyang's determination to build nuclear weapons and refusal to adopt meaningful economic reforms. As a result, the North is more isolated than ever, despite periodic outreach efforts.

Thus, Pyongyang hopes for Russian investment and trade. The DPRK would welcome another friend on the UN Security Council whenever nuclear and human rights issues arise. Even if Moscow provides little of practical value--economic plans are not always executed in the North--possible Russian involvement may encourage the PRC to overlook Pyongyang's blemishes.

Moscow has a very different perspective. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared last fall that economic ties were "reaching a whole new level," but that isn't saying much. While the DPRK offers some economic possibilities, the latter's poverty and unpredictability reduce its attractiveness as a market. Nor is resource-rich Russia looking for new mineral supplies. Ironically, Moscow's chief economic interest in the North is as a transit route to South Korea. Already Russia is shipping some coal to the South via a cargo terminal in the DPRK. Among the projects being discussed are railroad, gas pipeline, and power transmission lines from Russia passing through North Korea to the ROK. In this way the Putin government is interested in north Korea, not North Korea.

However, as U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated, especially after events in Ukraine over the last year, Moscow has been looking for other fields of combat. Pressing for resumption of the Six-Party Talks raises Russia's diplomatic profile, moves Moscow closer to China, and applies pressure on the U.S.

Moreover, threatening to turn the Korean peninsula into a new Great Game targets the U.S. in two ways. The first is to apply subtle pressure on Seoul, encouraging it to distance itself from U.S. policy toward Moscow. For instance, Mikhail Bondarenko, Moscow's trade representative in the South, visited North Korea's Kaesong Industrial Complex, mostly filled with South Korean firms. Russian investment there would leave the North less dependent on its southern neighbor, where some have suggested closing the facility to cut hard current transfers to Pyongyang. The Putin government does not expect the South to formally break with America, but would benefit from a less enthusiastic application of sanctions.

The second effect is to interfere with Washington's attempt to isolate and pressure the North. Alexander Galushka, in charge of economic development of Russia's Far East, predicted a ten-fold increase of trade between Russia and the North to $1 billion annually by 2020. He also cited greater investor interest in the North. Enhanced economic ties would reduce the impact of existing sanctions and make Moscow less receptive to new U.S. proposals to tighten controls. Indeed, in the midst of the Sony hacking controversy Russia denounced U.S. "threats" against the North.

The Putin government could do more to upend the Korean balance. However, so far the Russo-North Korean performance is largely international Kabuki Theater. Greater Russian interest in the DPRK will hinder Washington's efforts to force North Korea to submit, but China was not going to allow that to happen, despite deteriorating relations with Pyongyang. The Obama administration may find the North in a less giving mood. But then, the Kim regime was not planning to negotiate away nuclear weapons, its most important leverage with the rest of the world.

However, Russia's attention to Pyongyang should remind Washington that Moscow matters to the U.S. in many ways, big and small. Ukraine is of little security interest to America, but Russia may respond to U.S. pressure there by targeting more serious Washington interests elsewhere, such as Iran, Afghanistan, and Korea. So far Moscow has exacted only a small price. But the cost could grow in the years ahead. The Obama administration should carefully count the cost before engaging in a new Cold War with Russia.