Pyongyang nervously eyes the Russian bear

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 August, 2008, 12:00am

The Russian bear historically has extended its claws as far as the Korean peninsula while battling for power in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Korea was the prize in the war that ended in the Russian defeat at the hands of Japan in 1905. The former Soviet Union occupied the Korean peninsula above the 38th parallel after the second world war and installed Kim Il-sung as the North's leader. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, after some hesitation, approved Kim's plan for invasion of the South in 1950 and showered the North with massive aid during and after the Korean war.

Now the question is the degree to which Russia's current leaders see the peninsula as a battleground for political and economic influence. Fear of Russia may actually be less acute in Seoul than in Pyongyang, where Moscow has been alternately a benefactor and a bully. Since opening diplomatic relations with Moscow after the collapse of Soviet rule in 1991, South Korea has extended billions of dollars in loans, set up factories in Russia and is a major importer of its oil and gas.

Russia earns very little from North Korea but sees its potential as a source of raw materials, a bulwark against Chinese, Japanese and American influence in Northeast Asia and a bridge to the west through South Korea. North Korea is so important to Russia that Kim Il-sung, and his son Kim Jong-il, 'always said Russia was more scary' than the US, according to Kim Dong-su, a North Korean diplomat who defected in 1998.

The communist regime in Pyongyang may look primarily to China for aid, trade and diplomatic support, but no one doubts the Russians aspire to a major role. The Russians, though, arouse the deepest suspicions among the elite surrounding Kim Jong-il. They're convinced that Moscow would like to bring about the overthrow of the regime and install its own leader.

Kim Il-sung's and Kim Jong-il's instincts about Russian aims, to some extent, reflect their Russian backgrounds. Kim Il-sung was sheltered as an officer in the Soviet army during the second world war while his son was born near the Siberian city of Khabarovsk, spent much of his childhood there and studied in Moscow.

Russia cut off aid - and stopped accepting North Korean currency - in 1991, but Moscow has lately promised huge assistance to revamp the North's rail system. A renewed Russian influence would have a huge impact on the armed forces as well as the dilapidated economy.

Kim Dong-su called for 'a better combination of sticks and carrots' to get Pyongyang to co-operate on dealings with Seoul and a protocol for verifying whatever the North has done to meet six-party agreements for dropping its nuclear programme. South Korea's president, Lee Myung-bak, wants to do just that.

As the Georgian invasion suggests, however, Russia may choose to intervene in Korea by propping up the North against other powers, despite Pyongyang's fears of getting mauled by the great bear's regional ambitions.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals